The Arkansas Department of Transportation opened bids Wednesday on a project to demolish the old White River Bridge at Clarendon,̶ ̶o̶n̶e̶ ̶d̶a̶y̶ ̶after a group of Monroe County residents went to court in a last-ditch effort to save the historic structure.
A bid of $11.3 million from Century Construction Group Inc. of Tupelo, Miss., was the lowest of four bids submitted to demolish and remove the U.S. 79 bridge and end a yearslong saga to save the bridge as a pedestrian and bicycle span to attract tourists to view one of the largest remaining natural bottomland hardwood forests in North America.
Danny Straessle, an agency spokesman, said the department moved ahead with the bridge-removal project after receiving letters from the U.S. Department of Interior affirming the 10-year-old agreement to build a new bridge over the White River as well as approaches across the Cache River and the White River National Wildlife Refuge remains in force.
"At this time, there is nothing preventing us from moving forward," he said.
But boosters of the efforts to save the bridge haven't given up.
On T̶u̶e̶s̶d̶a̶y̶ Wednesday*, eight Monroe County taxpayers filed a complaint and motion for a preliminary injunction to enjoin the department from demolishing the 87-year-old bridge, which they say is too valuable as a historic and cultural symbol to destroy.
"The Historic Clarendon Bridge was made in America," according to the lawsuit. "It is a symbol of American strength, craftsmanship, and freedom of expression. It is an engineering marvel and a core part of Arkansas history that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in America.
"The Bridge sits on or near the original road (Arkansas' first military road) from Memphis to Little Rock. Signage on the Bridge reflects that the Historic Clarendon Bridge is on the route of the historic Trail of Tears. Defendants plan to destroy the Historic Clarendon Bridge."
They contend that elements of the original agreement struck between the state agency and federal government 10 years ago constitutes an illegal exaction under the Arkansas Constitution and, therefore, is invalid.
In the court pleadings, they point to an exchange deed the state transportation department executed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which they said was made "under duress."
The exchange deed grants the state agency an easement valued at $104,500 and totaling 49.69 acres. In exchange, the state agency conveyed other land totaling 147 acres to the federal agency that were valued at $404,000 and agreed to "expend taxpayer funds in excess of $10.8 million" to demolish the bridge.
The state transportation department had no choice because the only land available for the new bridge was U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land.
"Under the circumstances, ADOT had no alternative than to submit the Arkansas taxpayers to economic duress," the lawsuit said. "The exchange deed was entered into by ADOT under duress, and USFWS received a windfall."
"Duress and payment of 100 times the value of the easement purchased by ADOT is an unconscionable contract that is void, and constitutes an illegal exaction of public funds," the lawsuit added.
The case was assigned to Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza. No hearing had been scheduled by Wednesday evening, according to the online court docket.
Clarendon Mayor Jim Stinson, who is married to one of the plaintiffs in the case, Phyllis Stinson, said supporters of the historic bridge turned to state court after they feared that a separate lawsuit filed in 2016 in federal court wasn't moving fast enough to stop the demolition.
"We're just trying to basically see if we can hold [the demolition and removal] up and get a hearing," the mayor said.
The new bridge was built in two stages at a cost of $60.8 million and completed about two years ago.
While the new bridge is safer and smoother than the old one, residents of Clarendon wondered what would become of their town now that motorists bypass it. Its population of 1,455 is the lowest population the Monroe County seat has recorded since 1890.
The city's population loss was mirrored countywide. No other county in Arkansas lost more population from 2000-2010 than Monroe County.
The county began the decade with 10,254 residents. Ten years later, 8,149 people called the county home, a fall of 20.5 percent. The U.S. Census estimates the county's population at 7,169 as of 2016, the latest year for which an estimate is available.
Efforts to save the storied bridge for other uses began about five years ago, after the agreement was reached between state and federal officials.
Stinson and others soon came together around an effort to convert the old bridge into a crossing for cyclists, hikers, bird-watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts through the remote federally protected wilderness area -- a Delta version of the Big Dam Bridge in Little Rock or the Big River Crossing between Memphis and West Memphis, a railroad bridge converted to a bridge limited to pedestrians and cyclists.
Meetings were held, designs were drawn up, a coalition was formed and lobbying state and federal officials began, which included Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson meeting with federal officials in Washington, D.C.
A meeting late last year between local supporters and federal officials ended with the latter saying they haven't seen anything new in circumstances or information to revisit their original determination in 2007 to have the old bridge removed.
"It's not looking good," Stinson said.
Metro on 01/18/2018
*CORRECTION: A lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop the demolition and removal of the old U.S. 79 bridge over the White River at Clarendon was filed Wednesday in Pulaski County Circuit Court. A previous version of this article gave an incorrect date on when the lawsuit was filed.
Print Headline: State acts to raze Clarendon bridge; Residents file motion to save structure