ROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times
Kismet citizens were given a chance to air some of their concerns at a town hall meeting Tuesday hosted by the Seward County Commission.
Much of the discussion concerned the condition of roads in the county. Commissioner C.J. Wettstein pointed to Second Street Road, which was repaired about two years ago and is once again rough. He said the county is working on ways to make roads smoother and safer.
“We’re going to have to come up with a program and come up with some money to start working on them,” he said. “We patched Panhandle Road. That was a rough patch, I thought. They’re not broken out yet, but they’re really rough. We’re really going to have to double down and try to figure out a program we can do. We have 126 miles of paved road in Seward County, and we’re just going to have to start working on it.”
As other commissioners would say, Chairman Scott Carr said the county needs to have plans in five-year periods and stick to them.
Commissioner Steve Helm said much of what the county is dealing with is a lack of maintenance
Wettstein said the county likewise is looking at ways to speed up the amount of blacktop that can be reworked in a given time.
Commissioner Presephoni Fuller said the county has some possible options for high volume roads, as well as putting up more signage.
“Commerce comes through here,” she said. “Everything that runs through Liberal, Kismet and Seward County helps our economy strive here, and we can’t just shut them down.”
Fuller then addressed another subject that would become another significant discussion Tuesday night, that of the Kismet bridge. With the problem existing for decades, she said something needs to be done between the county and Union Pacific Railroad.
“The railroad would not be what it is without Kismet being here, and Kismet wouldn’t be what it is without the railroad being here,” she said. “We’ve got to find a happy medium. That bridge, it needs to be bridged out. When we did the bus tour, there is another way the citizens can get around. It may take a little bit longer, but we don’t want accidents.”
Fuller said the Kismet bridge’s condition needs to resemble that of a neighboring bridge.
“The Mighty Samson is down the street,” she said. “We need to have a Samson Jr.”
Fuller said Kansas 125th House District Representative Shannon Francis has worked closely on the bridge project.
“It doesn’t need a pass the buck,” she said. “Either you do it, or the railroad does it. There needs to be a meeting of the minds. It’s a safety issue for our children, for our citizens and getting across that.”
Helm said he can remember conversations about the bridge issue at least two decades ago.
“It sounds like it needs to be fixed, but we just can’t go building a bridge over a railroad without their permission,” he said. “You’ve got to find that one person at the railroad you can talk to. We’ve never been able to find that person.”
Wettstein said county officials at times find who they believe is the right person to talk to, but railroad leaders then shift the responsibility to someone else.
“You try getting hold of that somebody else, and you can’t get hold of that somebody else,” he said.
Wettstein said bars were put up on the bridge to keep big trucks and equipment from going across it, but even those have been knocked over multiple times. He added former Road and Bridge Supervisor Tony Herrman got UP to fix the bridge, with help from Road and Bridge workers, but not long after that, it was again in disrepair.
According to paperwork from the 1930s, UP owns the bridge, and while it is the railroad’s responsibility to maintain the bridge, Wettstein said the company has not taken that responsibility.
“We did put $500,000 back to put on a bridge there, but that’s not going to build it,” he said. “I think they’re figuring about $2.2 million to build it. On top of that, if we take full responsibility of it, the railroad’s going to say you need to pull that bridge, the existing one.”
Administrator April Warden said she wanted audience members to know commissioners are working diligently on the bridge issue.
“I really got involved in this in December of 2021, and I had my first contact with the railroad,” she said. “I’ve saved all of my paperwork and the people I’ve talked to so that I have a file that tracks all of that.”
Warden said the county’s files on the issue, which are believed to date back to 1938, have been sent to UP to show the railroad does own the bridge.
“We did go to court with them in 2003 or 2004, and that’s when they came out and did a little bit of minimal work on the bridge,” she said. “There’s been a lot infrastructure grants that have become available to us in funding. Nathan Foreman, our legal counselor, Eli Svaty, our economic development director, and myself got together and tried to apply for some of the funding opportunities we would have for the bridge.”
However, Warden said county officials were informed of a lack of ownership by the county, and because of this, the county could not apply for funding.
“We got shut down there,” she said. “We tried to go back and say, ‘Please someone at the railroad, work with us.’ They could apply for the funding. Whether or not they would get it because they’re not a government entity, we still didn’t get anywhere in that.”
Warden said in the midst of conversations with Francis, staffing from the Kansas Department of Transportation and other local road leaders, county staff were told to prepare engineered plans.
“If you had an engineered plan, at least you’re ready to go when somebody says we could get somebody to move,” she said.
Recently, commissioners signed an agreement with the Ellsworth-based engineering firm, Kirkham Michael & Associates to help with engineered plans for the bridge. This came after the firm was referred to the county.
“Not only do they do engineered plans, but they’re very involved in the grant process in helping other counties get funding,” Warden said. “They know of a lot of sources, and they help you with that grant process.”
Warden said officials with the firm have been out to the bridge and have drawn a new plan.
“We looked at three different options,” she said. “We looked at rebuilding where the current bridge is located, building where the bridge is located now, but it would be a straight line to the stop sign, to the highway instead of having your curvature for your buses, heavy equipment.”
Warden said Kirkham Michael leaders told county staff the best cost option would be to build a new bridge while using the old bridge for traffic during construction.
“You can use the old bridge while you’re building the new bridge,” she said. “The railroad requires 23 feet of distance from the railroad tracks. We have that there. If we built on Cemetery Road, we were going to have to go over, and the cost for that was phenomenal just in the dirt work that was going to have to be done. They went with the plan to build a new bridge that will be the straight-line access to the stop sign. Kirkham Michael put in a request to Union Pacific back in September.”
Warden said UP leaders recently responded to request for help with the project, saying they wanted to hire their own engineers to look at the engineered plans from Kirkham Michael.
“They want the commissioners to sign an agreement that they will pay at least $50,000 for them just to come out here for a site visit and to look at our engineered drawings,” she said. “We have forwarded that agreement on to our legal counsel to review. I do believe they expect us to come back with some negotiations, but there’s a whole timeline we’ve been working on since December 2021. I wanted to jump for joy March 16 when we finally got something from the railroad with names attached to it.”
Warden, who is the wife of a local farmer, said the bridge would hold some personal concerns for her.
“I wouldn’t want to drive my equipment across it,” she said. “I wouldn’t want my kids on a school bus going across it either. I know how much it is used, and (the commissioners) do too. It’s not an easy process, though. We’ve learned a lot about working with the railroad.”