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Devil's Elbow bridge repairs could cost much more than planned
Devil's Elbow bridge repairs could cost much more than planned

Eastern District Commissioner Bill Farnham and local engineer Jerry Plunkett discuss Devil's Elbow bridge concerns at Monday's county commission meeting.
PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. (Feb. 24, 2009) — Dixon entrepreneur Jerry Plunkett told county commissioners Monday morning that he has good news and bad news on the county’s efforts to save the historic Devil’s Elbow bridge. Plunkett said the project probably will cost at least double the $1.6 million commissioners have been trying to raise through grant funds, but he also said more money should be available from federal and private sources.

“You can’t pay the $1.6 million and I know you can’t pay $3.2 million, and you shouldn’t have to,” Plunkett said. “I think I can raise about a half-million dollars, but that’s not enough. There’s going to be a lot more fundraising to do.”

Plunkett, a materials engineer who grew up in the Dixon area, attended what was then the Missouri School of Mines, moved back to a family home in Pulaski County, and is now working on various Fort Leonard Wood-related military contracting projects, recently inspected the bridge and said he believes there are serious environmental concerns that must be addressed in any restoration project.

“I’m a materials guy and I can tell you that with those big red flakes that are falling off today, somebody is going to tell you that you have to solve the problem,” Plunkett said. “I don’t think it’s possible to complete the bridge in two years. I think the red lead removal, by itself, may take six months.”

While red lead flakes dropping into a fishing river pose serious environmental concerns, Plunkett said environmental protection officials probably won’t penalize county leaders unless they do nothing.

“As long as you’re addressing these problems, you’re not ignoring them, you’re ahead of the situation,” Plunkett said.

Plunkett brought copies of the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine which listed structures along Route 66 as among the most-endangered cultural heritage sites of the world. The Devil’s Elbow bridge is the most famous Route 66 bridge in Missouri, Plunkett said, and that may make it possible to obtain grants and donations that wouldn’t be available for ordinary bridge repair work.

“This is a bridge of great historic and cultural significance,” Plunkett said. “The key to this is why should you folks pay to restore a historic bridge when you can’t even get the money to repair all the flood damage? … This is a marvelous opportunity and I don’t see why the county should have to pay for this. It’s a historic bridge and it should be a benefit to society.”

Commissioner Bill Farnham, who has spearheaded efforts to save the Devil’s Elbow bridge by pooling numerous state and federal grants, said he’s optimistic Plunkett’s plans will work.

“This is one of the reasons I ran for re-election, I wanted to make sure this project got done,” Farnham said. “I don’t want to see that bridge torn down and a plain concrete bridge put up; this is historic.”

Presiding Commissioner Bill Ransdall agreed.

“(Plunkett) is really very well-versed on federal dollars and what it will take to get them,” Ransdall said. “He’s opened up several businesses in Dixon and has been looking at the Devil’s Elbow bridge project and thinks some federal money may be available.”

Plunkett said he has years of experience working with complicated restoration projects and knows people involved in the Hollywood movie industry who may have personal interest in Route 66 bridges, and said adding certain elements to the restoration plans may help obtain additional grant funding without harming the bridge’s historic character.

Key items, Plunkett said, include improving safety by straightening the curved approaches to the bridge and adding a heated bridge deck to melt snow and ice using renewable energy from solar or other environmentally friendly power sources. By adding those features, it should be possible to obtain additional grant funds without the bridge being attacked as a “bridge to nowhere.” The bridge’s close proximity to Interstate 44 and potential as a traffic bypass route should also be noted in grant applications, Plunkett said.

“On curved bridges there are more accidents than straight bridges by a factor of four or five, depending on conditions such as snow and ice,” Plunkett said. “You increase the safety, use renewable energy in the heating system, and you build a bridge whose deck is very lightweight so it doesn’t require as much energy.”

Plunkett offered to draft letters to grant officials and engineers who are likely to support the project, and said he’s in the process of bringing a company to the county that would be able to do some of the bridge repair work. That would help keep construction and design funds within the county, he said.

“The people I’ve talked to so far aren’t just interested in this project but excited about it,” Plunkett said. “I’m planning to establish a manufacturing facility here, and I’ll give you a good bid, and if I do get the bid I’ll do at least two-thirds of the work here.”

Ransdall said he liked the idea, and the other commissioners agreed.

“If you’ll draft the letter, you’ll have the support of the commission,” Ransdall said.

Commissioners also raised other road and bridge concerns at Monday’s meeting.

• Farnham said flood damage and washouts near Riddle Bridge on the Gasconade River between Highway Y and Highway O could cause major problems with piers washing out unless the damage is addressed soon.

• Sheila Debo thanked the commissioners for their recent attention to Hardy Lane, a gravel road east of St. Robert.

“It was just atrocious but it’s fabulous now,” Debo said. “It used to be (road workers would) just come out and throw gravel in it and the minute you hit it, it would fly right out … Now they tamp it down and tamp it down so when you drive on it, it doesn’t all come out.”

Farnham said he appreciated the compliments, but noted that some residents don’t understand why roads can’t be repaired when they’re muddy and said other residents prefer their roads not be repaired at all.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is if you grade the roads when they are wet, it just makes a mud hole when the first car goes into it,” Farnham said. “I have one guy who asks to always leave some potholes because he’s afraid if there are no potholes the cars will go too fast.

• Ransdall reviewed a proposed bill working its way through the state legislature that would prohibit “beer bongs,” making alcohol with Jello, and several other types of alcohol consumption along state rivers, including those running through Pulaski County.

“I don’t know that Jello shots are a big problem on the Gasconade River. I could see that coolers could be a problem that somebody might want to have a quarter-barrel of beer on a gravel bar,” Ransdall said. “I’m not for or against, but it might be pretty hard to regulate, but I guess if somebody called it in, they’d have to enforce it … I can’t see it going anyplace, but stranger things have happened.”

Farnham noted that if the duties of the county sheriff’s department are expanded to include regulation of alcohol consumption on state rivers, that could create problems because the county sheriff’s department no longer owns a boat. Ownership of a county sheriff’s boat became a source of controversy when county commissioners voted to sell the boat to former sheriff J.T. Roberts after he lost his 2004 bid for re-election.

• Farnham recommended that commissioners purchase a used truck for $22,500 to replace a flatbed truck whose engine caught fire while being used to plow snow; commissioners adopted his recommendation. The county received a $17,000 insurance settlement for the burned truck.

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