County votes to restore historic Sutliff Bridge


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A packed room erupted with applause after the Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on Wednesday to rebuild the historic and nationally recognized Sutliff Bridge.

The bridge, which spans the Cedar River approximately 30 minutes from Iowa City, is the longest and oldest Parker steel-truss wood plank bridge in the United States.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will appropriate a $1.7 million grant to Johnson County in order to fully restore the bridge, which was built in 1898 and heavily damaged in the 2008 flood.

Supervisors also requested $440,000 from FEMA, which is still pending, to bring the bridge up to current safety codes. If FEMA doesn’t approve that funding, the supervisors could decide not to restore the bridge.

For now, FEMA is set to pay the full cost of rebuilding.

Randy Howell, a member of the Sutliff Bridge Authority, said the structure is a draw for tourists.

“It was a no-brainer to us about rebuilding the historical treasure and tourist attraction,” he said. “I was down by the bridge on Saturday and counted 40 or 50 cars in the parking lot and at least five out-of-state license plates, so it definitely drives attraction to the area.”

Supervisor Janelle Rettig noted her support for the project during the discussion.

“We must invest in protecting the places that define us as a county,” she said.

Supervisors Rod Sullivan and Terrence Neuzil also voted in favor of the project; Sally Stutsman and Pat Harney cast dissenting votes.

No maintenance should be needed for the next 30 to 40 years, Howell said. Short-term costs will include an $800 biennial inspection of the bridge and $2,000 every four years to have divers check the pilings the piers sit on, Howell said.

The Sutliff Bridge Authority plans to donate an initial $10,000 to start a community foundation for these expenses. It will continue to raise money, donating 50 to 75 percent of its annual income to the bridge’s maintenance.

“Fundraising for the bridge’s upkeep will be no problem, and our volunteer efforts will continue in order to keep the area clean,” Howell said.

The county did have another option: Instead of using all of the money for the Sutliff Bridge project, the supervisors could have taken 80 percent of the $1.7 million for another task. That would equal not quite $1.2 million after factoring in $200,000 for the cost associated with demolishing the bridge.

Harney talked about the possibility of a monument in the bridge’s place and using the rest of the funds for other projects. He said he didn’t feel the federal dollars were being spent appropriately.

“There could be another flood wiping this bridge out all over again,” he said.

Not all residents at Wednesday’s meeting were pleased with the supervisors’ decision.

Local resident Bill Stockman said he felt the project was a waste of taxpayers’ money, which could be used to fund other projects in the county.

“Mother Nature took it down,” he said. “I say leave it down. There are plenty of other bridges that could use attention.”

But Howell argued the only reason the money was coming to the county in the first place was because of the bridge, and the funds should not be used for another project.

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