Bay City Bridges: How Did We Get to This Point?
Despite being in the works since 2016, when Liberty Bridge officially became a privatized toll bridge, it surprised some Bay City and Great Lakes Bay Region residents.
On social media, people asked, “How in the world did we get to this point?” and contended that "There has to be more that could have been done to prevent this from happening".
How Bay City reached the point of having two private toll bridges across the Saginaw River could fill a large history book. There would be plenty of finger-pointing and woulda-coulda-shoulda-type moments.
But the fact of the matter is that the agreements have been signed, and it’s time to move forward.
We’ll do our best to summarize the events that led to the bridges becoming privatized.
How Bay City Came to Own Liberty and Independence Bridges
Banking on big population growth in the 1960s and 1970s, Bay City felt confident it could own, operate, and maintain two major bascule bridges well into the future. City officials predicted Bay City’s population to exceed 60,000 people (it would top out at around 53,000).
Having multiple points of access to both sides of the river was important for the local economy, and the city was set on ensuring there was infrastructure to handle the traffic.
The first project was replacing the old Belinda Street Bridge with the new Independence Bridge.
Construction of the $16 million Independence Bridge in the 1970s was financed through a county-wide, voter-approved $7 million bond, $3 million in funds allocated by the city, and $6 million in federal grant dollars. To get the entire county on board, the City agreed that it would pay all future costs of operation, administration, and maintenance of the bridge once it opened to traffic.
Then, in 1976, the Third Street Bridge collapsed, cutting off the main artery from downtown Bay City to the businesses on Midland Street.
Debate on if the city should spend taxpayer dollars replacing the bridge lasted for years. The only way to secure federal funding for the project was to build a four-lane bridge, which was drastically bigger than the old Third Street Bridge. It would also require greater maintenance and operation costs over the years.
The city ultimately approved the project, and Liberty Bridge opened to the public in 1986.
During this time, Bay City’s population began to shrink. The Defoe Shipbuilding Co. closed, General Motors Co. was tightening its belt, and small businesses in Downtown Bay City were relocating to strip malls and shopping malls, changing the look and feel of the city.
Fast forward to today, and the city’s population sits at about 32,000 — roughly half of what it aspired to be.
With minimal repairs to worry about with the new bridges, the city could continue maintaining local roads and operating the bridges.
But over the past few decades, as less property tax income and funding from the state came in, Band-Aid-type repairs were made on the two bridges in order to continue making repairs to local roads. (Note: Prior to the deal with United Bridge Partners, local road repair dollars were used from the same budget line item as bridge maintenance.)
Eventually, serious problems would come to a head.
There was hope in 2016 that the city would receive a lifeline from the state to relieve its massive bridge liability. State Sen. Mike Green, R-Mayville, worked for nearly his entire term to get legislation signed that saw the state reimburse Bay City and other municipalities that owned bascule bridges, for the amount it cost to operate them each year. For Bay City, that meant $500,000 to $600,000 in money that could be put back into local roads and larger bridge repairs.
Timing was not on the city’s side, however.
At the same time, annual bridge inspection reports showed the city needed to make $6 million in critical repairs to Liberty and Independence bridges. At that time of that report, members of the City Commission actually considered closing a bridge.
So, despite the new money from the state, the bridge crisis became much more serious. It was no longer an issue of having money for pothole repairs because bridges sucked up those funds. It was an issue of having no money for bridges, period.
And until those repairs were made, the state would force closure for safety reasons.
Privatizing the Bridges
Seeking solutions to the bridge crisis, it was Bay City Manager Rick Finn who first called United Bridge Partners in the fall of 2016 to learn if the city had options of privatizing the infrastructure. Finn would ask UBP to put together a proposal for the City Commission.
That presentation happened in June 2017 and contained the following ideas:
- Bay City sells Independence and Liberty Bridges to UBP for $1 million
- UBP makes all critical repairs to Liberty Bridge and converts it into a toll bridge
- Construct a new Independence Bridge 120 feet high to avoid building a maintenance-heavy bascule bridge and toll it.
At the time, Bay City Mayor Kathleen Newsham called the proposal a no-brainer.
The public, however, was taken aback. After years of periodic bridge closures and news about serious repairs, talks about privatizing the bridges finally got the public’s attention.
Why wasn’t there a countywide millage to address the bridges?
At the time, public officials said it would be a tough sell and it was never taken to the ballot.
An MLive poll at the time showed 61% of people were not in favor of a millage.
At the same time, though, a poll conducted by the Bay City Area Chamber of Commerce showed a large majority of residents were against privatizing (tolling) the bridges and also against closing one of the bridges.
At what point did we begin to stop allocating funds for bridge maintenance?
Money was budgeted for maintenance, just never enough as property income tax and state revenue sharing dwindled — especially following the 2008 recession. When serious issues came to a head in 2016, there simply wasn’t $6 million to $9 million available for the estimated repairs.
UBP Signs Deal for Bridges with Bay City
United Bridge Partners initially planned to purchase both bridges, but that changed before a final agreement was inked.
Instead of owning the bridges, UBP would lease the bridge (thanks to recent state legislation) for the lifespan of the bridge — 75 years. That lease agreement was signed in August 2021.
Repairs on Liberty Bridge were completed in December 2022, and it is now open to traffic.
One of the bigger changes in the initial proposal was to rehabilitate rather than reconstruct Independence Bridge. UBP pointed to inflation and supply chain issues as its main reasons to rehabilitate instead.
Despite having reservations about the deal, the city ultimately approved the lease agreement. The concern was if the city rejected the agreement to rehabilitate because it favored the original plan to construct a new bridge, it could open itself up to lawsuits. Commissioner Ed Clements, 8th Ward, said, “I really think we got bait and switched,” MLive reported.
Work on Independence Bridge is slated to be completed by the end of 2024.
Doesn’t the plan to rehabilitate Independence Bridge instead of replacing it put us in danger?
No. Officials with the city and UBP agree that after rehabilitation is complete on the bridge, it would be as safe as a new bridge.
Does UBP own the Independence Bridge?
No, similar to the agreement with Liberty Bridge, UBP leases the Independence from the city for roughly 75 years.
When will Independence Bridge start collecting tolls?
Independence Bridge will start collecting tolls once it’s fully rehabilitated and opened back to traffic. Construction is slated to begin at the beginning of 2023 and wrap up by the end of 2024.