Century-old bridge replacement delayed by endangered bats

Century-old bridge replacement delayed by endangered bats

It’s a stretch you don’t just hear, but feel, from the driver’s seat.

“It’s like an old washboard, you know?”

Thunder also comes to mind when you hear a car drive over the bridge 34 feet above the railroad tracks on County Road M. The boards shake and rattle with every car that passes over it.

Columbia County Highway and Transportation Commissioner Chris Hardy said while historic and unique, the bridge is not fit for modern transportation.

Hardy ensures that it passes regular safety inspections, but with a speed limit set at 5 miles per hour and a weight limit of 5 tons, it’s not conducive for use as a county corridor. Hardy also has concerns about emergency vehicles having to use the rickety bridge.

“You come up over this hill and you don’t realize this deck laying there until you hit it, so it surprises you,” Hardy said.

The bridge was built back in 1910, when the railroad companies constructed those structures, Hardy said. There are three others around the county, like the one near the intersection of County Road M and E in the town of Randolph, but this one was the top priority.

“It’ll all be concrete bridge, it’ll be a concrete deck. You won’t have the boards anymore. Some people will probably miss it,” Hardy said.

Hardy said the county has worked for four years to finish the design and contract with the railroad to take over ownership of the bridge.

The project totals about $1.2 million, most of which will be funded by the state Department of Transportation. The county had to pay for a quarter of the engineering costs, and the railroad paid the remaining balance, Hardy said.

This will make this a bigger thoroughfare than it’s been in quite a few years.

About three weeks ago, Hardy said an engineer contacted him with another bump in the road on the way to a new bridge.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the northern long-eared bat is now considered an endangered species. Hardy said bridges like the one on County  Road M can be optimal habitats for the animals, so his crew had to inspect every crevice beneath the bridge for signs of the animals.

Alyssa Barrette, ecologist and wetland biologist with the Wisconsin DOT, said bats rely on structures like bridges for a habitat. She said there are techniques to continue construction on a structure even if bats are living there, such as rescheduling the project during a season with less impact, netting around a bridge or bat houses.

Barrette said with the recent listing of the northern long-eared bat as endangered, bat inspections are becoming a common aspect of state bridge projects.

“There are quite a few of these inspections planned for around the state, many of which are for projects planned for construction in the near future,” Barrette told News 3 in an email.

Hardy and his team found no signs of bats, but that inspection pushed the project back a few more months.

“The county road itself needs construction as well, but we’ve been kind of holding out for that because obviously the road is restricted to 5 tons by this bridge, so what it does is it pushed our work another year back into 2017,” Hardy said.

But Hardy chooses to see the comedy in the fact that bats delayed his project.

“I mean, the bridge is 105 years old. A three-month delay for some bats isn’t a big deal,” Hardy said. “It’s just kind of funny. It’s irony in the whole thing.”