The legislation would change the future of Lake of the Ozarks, paving the way for development of what was known as the quiet side of the lake.

The Lake of the Ozarks Community Bridge has reached its 20th anniversary mark this year. 

In 1990, the Missouri Transportation Corporation Act became law. The legislation would change the future of Lake of the Ozarks, paving the way for development of what was known as the quiet side of the lake. 

The challenge, at the time, was to build a bridge across the Lake of the Ozarks that would link the east side with the west side, or what was often referred to as the St. Louis side to the Kansas City side. The problem up until then had been the financing. But with the enabling legislation, the door opened for funding options to make what was once a pipe dream become reality, setting in place the catalyst for economic growth and development. 

Lake of the Ozarks Community Bridge Corporation formed in 1992, and development of the project went into high gear. Construction began in 1996. On May 1, 1998, the bridge was dedicated and opened to traffic. 

Today, 20 years later, the Lake of the Ozarks Community Bridge serves as a key traffic artery for both tourism and local traffic. It has helped to develop a tighter business and recreational environment by linking to two sides of the lake making daily access to both sides possible. 

The day the bridge was officially opened, Lake of the Ozarks celebrated. High school bands from the east and the west marched across the bridge signifying the link between the communities. 

State and local dignitaries gathered on the bridge to applaud the feat accomplished between the Missouri Department of Transportation and the bridge corporation that led to an infrastructure boom at Lake of the Ozarks and the only toll bridge in the state of Missouri. 

Joe Roeger, a founding member of the bridge corporation who continues to serve on the board, said the financing was quite creative utilizing the then new statute enabling Missouri transportation corporations and requiring a number of things to fall in place. The pursuit of financing was a roughly two-year process and was assisted by an approving economy and declining interest rates at the time (1994-1996). 

The local political scene was interesting in that it took an unexpected twist. Upon the advice of MoDOT, the  application for the toll bridge was originally designed to be located in the city of Osage Beach near the Highway 54 and Highway 42 intersection. However, the City of Osage Beach board of alderman did not approve the bridge project. Fortunately, a revised application for the bridge to be located in the city of Lake Ozark was approved by the Missouri Highway Commission Highway Commission. With Lake Ozark onboard for the project, the bridge corporation moved forward, Roeger said.

In the 20 years since, Roeger said they have seen a significant amount of usage along the route. He reports that over 25 million vehicles have passed over the bridge, with traffic totals peaking in 2007. Various improvement projects have stunted traffic growth at times, though they have seen a gradual rise from year to year, he said. 

Eddie Pue, also a founding member of the corporation who remains on the board, said the bridge was the catalyst for not only economic growth but creating a larger sense of community. Pue, a longtime west side resident and realtor said the bridge was a long time coming. It was an idea he remembers being discussed in the 1950s but it was always a matter of finding the money, he said. 

“We knew a bridge would be good for business on both sides of the lake,” Pue said. “The development on Shawnee Bend, Porta Cima and other projects would not have happened without the bridge.”

An example of the impact the development the bridge spurred is the increase in assessed valuation of the Sunrise Beach Fire Protection District. In 1996, the year the bridge construction began, the district’s total assessed valuation was $79,900,000. This year the district’s assessed valuation is $336,100,000.

“The bridge has obviously had a significant economic impact on both sides of the Lake, but particularly the west side.  I believe when the bridge financing is paid off and the bridge is free, there will be a substantial wave of new investment on the west side,” Roeger said. 

In 2008, the bridge saw a large hit in traffic and usage with the turn of the recession. In 2012, the group restructured and converted the existing corporation into a trans-development district. This move would swing finances around and help to retain the target to be debt free by 2026, he said. 

Once the debt is free and clare, Roeger said the bridge will be turned over to the state. In the meantime, he said the six-member board continues to work hard to make things happen on time, keeping the 2026 date as the goal. 

Roeger said recent lake residents and visitors may not remember a time before the bridge linking Lake Ozark to Shawnee Bend at the 15.5 mile marker was in existence. 

During a recent meeting of the highway commission, Roeger representing the bridge corporation held a briefing for MoDOT at their meeting in Camdenton. The presentation showcased the path the bridge had taken since its completion and highlight the struggles and successes along the way.