Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Oct. 13, 2009
Our View - Use funds for alternate project, not Sutliff Bridge
As much as we value the 111-year-old Sutliff Bridge as a historic structure -- as much as we think the Sutliff Bridge Authority has done an admirable job maintaining the decommissioned bridge for nearly three decades -- the Sutliff Bridge essentially remains a flood-damaged bridge to nowhere.
With the state having to slash 10 percent of its budget -- and with officials recently deciding that the county couldn't afford to spend $75,000 on a special election for supervisor -- the Johnson County supervisors have a clear, though unfortunate, decision to make: take the money offered by FEMA, spend the $200,000 to remove the two spans of bridge still standing and then use the remaining money for other, necessary public infrastructure projects.
We were as surprised as the supervisors Thursday when FEMA officials said that alternative projects were even an option. Who would have thought that applying for FEMA funds to replace a beloved local historic structure would be akin to getting an insurance payment for car damage that you then have to decide whether to spend the money only on fixing the car or for other important household needs?
But this situation seems to fit perfectly FEMA's rationale for why it offers an "Alternate Project" option: "Occasionally an Applicant may determine that the public welfare would not be best served by restoring a damaged facility or its function to the pre-disaster design. This usually occurs when the service provided by the facility is no longer needed, although the facility was still in use at the time of the disaster." (www.fema.gov/government/ grant/pa/re_alternate.shtm).
So here are the options as they now stand:
• If the county decides to restore the bridge, FEMA would provide about $1.7 million (90 percent of the actual project costs to repair the flood damage). The total costs would range from $1.83 million (to connect the remaining two spans to land with a cable stay bridge) or more than $2 million (to replace the span with something that stays true to the original structure with modern construction techniques.)
• But if the county decides to use the money on alternate projects -- options include repairing roads, creating trails or maintaining facilities -- FEMA would cut the award down to about $1.4 million (75 percent of the repair costs). That would leave about $1.2 million after the county pays the money to remove the rest of the bridge.
At this time and in this current economic situation, there is simply no way the supervisors can justify using this money to restore a bridge that offers no other essential public service than providing a scenic picnic spot. The $1.2 million represents less than 1½ percent of the county's $85 million budget, but this is a time when every 1½ percent counts.