Bay City faces a crossroads with tough decisions about bridge repair ahead

Four drawbridges connect Bay City, but the question of how to pay for needed repairs to two of those bridges divides the community.

The city owns two of the bridges, Liberty and Independence. The State of Michigan owns the other two, Veterans Memorial and Lafayette. The two city-owned bridges need between $34 million and $61 million in critical repairs. The money is not in the city budget. Experts say if significant repairs aren’t made within two years, the bridges will be unsafe for travel and be forced to close. 

To avoid that, the city has requested proposals for a “Public Private Partnership for the Replacement, Rehabilitation, Operations and Maintenance of Two Bascule Bridges.” Proposals are due May 8. City Purchasing Agent Susan Carmien said the bids will be publicly opened and read aloud at 2 p.m. May 8. You can read the request for proposals here. 

Businesses that plan to bid were required to attend a mandatory pre-proposal meeting on March 26. Anyone who did not attend the meeting is not allowed to submit a proposal.

About 20 companies were represented at the March 26 meeting. City Manager Dana Muscott was pleased with the turnout and is eager to see what they propose. During the meeting, Public Works Director Robert Dion offered the firms tours of the bridges and answered questions. Dion said all the questions and answers will be sent to the firms at the meeting so everyone has the same information to write their proposals. He also offered to share the results of city surveys to the firms.

“We’ve looked at many options to get this taken care of,” Dion said. “It’s been a struggle. … Right now, we’re open to anything. We don’t have our hearts set on any one thing.”

While there are no restrictions on what could be in those proposals, the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce hired Victory Phones to poll 400 city and county residents about three options:

Option One: Remove either Independence or Liberty bridge. Continue to maintain the remaining bridge. Estimated cost: between $26 and $50 million

Option Two: The city repairs and rehabilitates both Independence and Liberty bridges. Estimated cost: $34 million and $61 million over 6 years

Option Three: Sell Independence and Liberty bridge to a private company. The company repairs Liberty and replaces Independence. There is no initial cost to city or county residents. The bridges would become toll bridges, though, so there would be costs to individuals based on use.

In March, the Chamber hosted a series of meetings around the community to discuss the issue. Chamber President and CEO Ryan Tarrant said the chamber has not endorsed any option, but held the meetings to encourage public input. The City Commission also has held several meetings to invite public input into the issue. Individual commissioners have sought input via social media.

“We thought it was important to provide this information to the City Commission and also to the public,” Tarrant said. “We want to hear your concerns.”

Tarrant said the Chamber poll revealed no clear-cut community favorite. “Basically, nobody likes any of the options, but we know a decision has to be made,” Tarrant said during one of the meetings. “There are no great options. It’s a hard decision.”

In the Chamber poll, 61% opposed privatizing the bridges and charging a toll. However, only 29% said they would support a tax hike. The poll also showed people don’t want to lose either bridge. Of those polled, 75% opposed removing the Liberty Bridge while 82% opposed removing Independence. 

Tarrant understands the problem. His own family relies on all four bridges every day. They’re not alone. Independence Bridge, which was built in 1976, sees about 24,000 vehicles every day. Liberty Bridge, built 10 years later in 1986, has an approximate daily traffic count of 20,000 vehicles.

Cordal D. Morris, 9th Ward City Commissioner, said the city has concerned a wide range of options, including assistance from other municipalities and the state. While they continue to explore these options, he doesn’t think any funding will come through.

“We’re still talking to other entities, but it doesn’t look good,” Morris said. “We’re not getting help from anyone.”

City Commissioner Ed Clements, 8th Ward, echoed Morris in saying the city is on its own. He also stressed that the city cannot reduce the number of bridges. “From my perspective, we need to keep both bridges open. When a bridge is closed, or even right now with Vets Bridge down to two lanes, the traffic is noticeable."

The timeline for answers is not firm. Once the proposals are in, Carmien expects the city to carefully analyze each option and negotiate with the bidders. Dion also said the timeline is flexible. “We don’t have any expectations on when the bridges will be built or re-built or re-structured,” Dion said.

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