Rossville residents ready for Willard Bridge over Kansas River to reopen

A construction crew works on the south bank of the Kansas River near the Willard Bridge Friday morning. The new bridge is scheduled to open Monday. (Luke Ranker/The Capital-Journal)

WILLARD &ROSSVILLE — As a construction crew worked to complete the Willard Bridge on the south bank of the Kansas River, Sarene McCrory poured coffee a few miles from the north end in Rossville.

 

She and others in the community are ready for the bridge to reopen Monday, she said from behind the bar in Grounded Coffee House. Most of her customers are local, so the closure of Carlson Road to Willard may not have affected her business, but it certainly didn’t help, she said. More importantly, McCrory said she is tired of the increased traffic on US-24 highway, which picked up greatly when the 62-year-old bridge closed in June.

“It’s dangerous,” she said. “We’re really excited to have it open.”

At the corner of US-24 and Main Street, Rossville Liquor Store employee Bryce Roberts echoed McCrory’s excitement. Even though the liquor store is the only one within dozens of miles, Roberts said business had slowed.

“I didn’t realize how many of our customers came from south of the river,” he said. “I haven’t seen some faces in a while.”

A ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for noon Monday on the north side, followed by a walking procession across the bridge to the south, where a small celebration will be held to commemorate the end of what Shawnee County public works director Tom Vlach called the largest public works project the county “has done or probably ever will do.” Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer is expected to attend, Vlach said.

The new bridge, with a $18.1 million price tag, features a hard concrete deck instead of a steal grate, wider shoulders, and a bike and walking path on the east side. It’s expected to last 75 to 100 years. The completion of the project, which was expected to cost nearly $25 million, marks a major success for the county, said commissioner and former Rossville mayor Shelly Buhler. She championed a new bridge for years, often voting against other county expenses at a time when a funding source for the bridge was unknown.

After originally facing a conundrum finding funds for the bridge, Buhler praised the project for costing nearly $7 million less than expected. It will also be finished months before the December deadline.

In the early 2000s when Buhler served as mayor, she began keeping a file on the bridge’s deteriorating condition. That file can now be closed, she said.

“I can finally look at it and say, ‘We’re finished,’” she said. “It’s a good feeling.”

Weight limits on Willard Bridge, constructed in 1955 and rehabbed in 1983, were first lowered in 2007. An assessment in 2009 found heavy corrosion on metal pins supporting the bridge that could cause them to fail. The bridge is the same type as the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed in August 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145.

At the time, funds were limited, so the bridge didn’t become a major public concern until 2015. A series of weight-limit reductions left the maximum weight at 9 tons, limiting its use to passenger vehicles.

That sparked an outcry in the rural area, where farmers with large machinery and Kaw Valley USD 321 relied on the bridge for easy access north to Rossville or south to Interstate 70, Buhler said. Driving east to Topeka or west to Maple Hill added 10 to 20 minutes to most people’s drive. Nearly 4,000 cars cross the bridge daily, according to estimates Buhler has cited.

“When you go to work you have the sun in your eyes, and when you come home you have the sun in your eyes,” said Rossville mayor Ken Wichman, summing up the inconvenience. “It’s always been a little safer to take Carlson Road south than deal with the oncoming traffic on highway 24.”

^

Contact reporter Luke Ranker at (785) 295-1270 or @lrankerNEWS on Twitter. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/lukeranker.

PowerPlayer

Willard Bridge TimeLine

2007 - First weight limit reductions from 40 tons to 36 tons for vehicles with three or more axels

2009 - Assessment finds metal pins at risk of failing

January 2015 - Weight limits reduced to nine tons for two-axle vehicles, 15 tons for three-axle vehicles and 27 tons for vehicle combinations involving more than three axles

February 2015 - Weight limits reduced to nine tons

November 2015 - County commission approves $24.7 million project budget

January 2016 - County award construction bid to Atlantic, Iowa-based A.M. Cohron & Co., construction begins

March 2016 - Kansas Department of Transportation agrees to front nearly $9 million no-interest loan

June 2017 - Old bridge closes

 

More