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State Senator asks for AG's opinion on the BNSF railroad bridge over the Missouri River

A Bismarck State Senator has asked for a formal Attorney General’s opinion on who owns the BNSF railroad bridge between Bismarck and Mandan.

The bridge dates to 1883. The railroad is planning to demolish it – and replace it with a new crossing that the railroad says can better handle modern rail traffic.

A group called “Friends of the Railroad Bridge” wants to keep the old bridge, for its historical value, while allowing the railroad to build a new bridge. And a former assistant state attorney general has argued that the current bridge is state property.

State Sen. Tracy Potter (D-Bismarck) told reporters he finds that argument persuasive.

"It revolves around the 'Equal Footing' doctrine," Potter said. "Each state enters the Union on an equal basis with every other state."

Potter said in this case, the state has control over its navigable waters.

"The state was born Nov. 2, 1889, with ownership of the bridge arising from it," Potter said.

Potter said no matter which way Attorney General Drew Wrigley rules, he considers this a “no lose” situation.

"If the Attorney General declines to issue an opinion, or if he issues an adverse opinion, we're exactly where we are today," Potter said. "But if the Attorney General says yes, then all of the dreams that people have had about the preservation of the bridge come into play immediately."

Potter said in that case, the State Historical Society would take control of the bridge, and the Friends group could be engaged in doing what needs to be done to make the bridge a treasure, rather than raising money to purchase the bridge. He said it would be similar to the public-private partnerships with the Fort Lincoln Foundation and the Lewis and Clark Foundation.

"All of this is the kind of history that makes Bismarck-Mandan a jewel," Potter said. "This could be the crown jewel of our tourism attractions."

Potter hand-delivered the request for the opinion.

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