The Cobban Bridge, a familiar icon in central Chippewa County that’s been closed to vehicle and pedestrian traffic since Aug. 2017, has won an international award. Also, an update on the bridge’s future could come within weeks, Chippewa County Highway Commissioner Brian Kelley said.
The historic bridge, built in 1908 and moved to its current site between Cornell and Jim Falls in 1918-1919, was nominated as “Bridge of the Year” by the author of an online column called “The Bridgehunter Chronicles.” Author Jason Smith had noticed the bridge’s vibrant Facebook community — spearheaded by a social media group named “Save the Cobban Bridge” — and asked if he could write about the bridge, said the group’s administrator, Marilyn Murphy of Cornell.
“I said, sure, I’m not a bridge expert, but here’s as much as I know,” Murphy said, laughing. “Lo and behold, a couple months later, he contacted me and said he’d nominated the Cobban Bridge for the award.” Smith could not be reached for comment.
The contest — hosted by Smith’s online column The Bridgehunter Chronicles – is named after Othmar H. Ammann, a Swiss architect “believed to be the greatest bridge builder of the 20th century,” the American Roads and Transportation Builders Association said. The awards have been held for at least seven years, according to the Bridgehunter Chronicles’ website.
Murphy rallied a formidable group of Cobban Bridge fans to vote online, and on Jan. 7, the Cobban Bridge beat out 12 other bridges in Germany, Iceland, Canada, Myanmar and the U.S. to win with over 25 percent of the vote.
Murphy is delighted the bridge is getting international recognition, but even more so that the community seems to be taking notice. “People are excited it won this award. That’s for certain,” she said.
Verdict expected in January
Chippewa County Board meetings where the bridge’s fate has been discussed have drawn crowds. The Aug. 2017 decision to close the bridge to traffic drew criticism from the surrounding community – “I’m scared (the county) is going to say, just live without it,” Murphy said in August – but the county is exploring options to tear down the bridge and build again at the same site.
The county is moving forward with preliminary design and environmental permitting “in anticipation of building a bridge in the future,” county Highway Commissioner Brian Kelley said. But the county is ultimately waiting for a verdict from the Department of Transportation to find out if they can afford to build again.
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“(The Cobban Bridge) was submitted into the state and federal local bridge program,” Kelley said. If the project is accepted, 80 percent of funds for the new bridge would be come from federal and state sources; the county would only shoulder 20 percent of the cost. The price of a new bridge rings in at approximately $7.3 million.
Kelley expects the DOT’s answer in January.
“That’s the best-case scenario we can hope for, the state funding the full 80 percent,” he said. “We’ve heard there could be ... a cap of $5 million (on the federal and state contribution), and that would mean the county share would increase above the 20 percent.”
Another option, which the state proposed, is a high-cost local bridge program; it would require the towns of Arthur and Eagle Point to pitch in 33 percent of the cost, the county to take up 33 percent, and the federal government to pay the last 33 percent.
“There was really no talk at the county of pursuing that (option),” Kelley said.
If the DOT’s verdict is unfavorable, the county board will reevaluate the matter.
Locally, however, progress has been made. “If everything falls into place in this application cycle, we’d hopefully be breaking ground in 2020 (or) 20201,” Kelley said.
Debate over the bridge’s condition dates back to at least May 1992. The bridge was closed for safety reasons in January 1993 and underwent a rehabilitation in 1994. It reopened in 1995.
Inspections of the historic bridge gave it a 47.6 score in February 1997. But that score fell to 2.5 after a county inspection in October 2016, when the bridge was ruled as structurally deficit, according to information supplied to County Board members.