Russell Street and its bridge are something of an asphalt albatross when it comes to Missoula road projects.

So far, a lot of paper has accumulated in the wearying process of writing the environmental impact statement. Some $3.6 million has been spent on the project so far, and more money is reserved.

"We know the bulk of our STPU funds for the coming five years, including this year, is indeed tied up in Russell," Ann Cundy, Office of Planning and Grants senior transportation planner, said of federal Surface Transportation Program Urban money.

But barring a miracle, the road isn't about to be replaced, nor is the linchpin bridge. One city official with experience in road projects estimates construction won't start for at least three years, and it's five years out more realistically.

So the years chug on, the dollars add up, and traffic pressures grow on the lumpy road and span over the Clark Fork River.

Perhaps ironically, though, the Russell Street Bridge isn't on the brink of crumbling, barring a catastrophe. Rather, it's an example of much infrastructure around the country that's overly ripe for an upgrade.

While inspection reports from the Montana Department of Transportation show a sturdy enough structure, an MDT bridge engineer said it needs to be replaced because it's not adequate for current traffic.

"That is a very common need nationwide at this point," Barnes said. "There's a lot of bridges and a lot of infrastructure that was built 50, 60 years ago, and areas have expanded substantially."

At this rate, building new roads might happen at a snail's pace. City Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Bender, though, said the Russell and Third streets undertaking taught officials some lessons about how to do similar projects in the future - and how not to do them.

Here's where the dollars have gone so far, the state of the bridge, and some of those lessons that will be put to use ahead.

***

Russell and Third streets landed on the city's priority list in 1996, and to date an estimated $3.6 million has been spent. It's an amount Bender said should have been as low as $1 million - even $500,000 - if an environmental impact statement hadn't been required.

(The EIS the state asked be completed for a couple of miles in city limits is the kind of intense review many citizens have unsuccessfully asked MDT to conduct for the oversized loads on U.S. Highway 12.)

The total project, Russell and Third streets and the bridge, are estimated to come in at some $40 million altogether. Here's where the money has gone so far, according to a contracts overview from the city Public Works Department.

WGM Group:

  • n $216,780. The firm did work on Third Street before it got looped into the Russell Street project.

Skillings-Connolly:

  • $1.7 million, original contract.
  • $8,298, amendment for environmental consultant for two additional meetings.
  • $663,062, the state or feds required the city expand the area analyzed for impacts.
  • $89,696, open house, right of way, environmental work, bridge landscaping design.
  • $35,143, additional air and noise impact analyses and more right-of-way research.
  • The total to Skillings-Connolly came to an estimated $2.5 million. Including the check to WGM, that's a grand total of some $2.7 million. But Skillings-Connolly couldn't get the job done, and HKM Engineering got a contract to proceed.

HKM Engineering:

  • $368,634, original "not to exceed" amount.
  • $31,008, amendment to reformat data from Skillings-Connolly and reconfigure roundabouts to see if historic resource conflicts could be avoided.
  • $178,166, MDT began requiring additional reviews to keep projects from falling off track, as happened under the watch of Skillings-Connolly; extended schedule and administrative cost.
  • $186,156, City Council requested peer review.
  • $4,610, additional trip for Kittelson peer reviewer to present its results.
  • $9,698, Federal Highway Administration required additional carbon monoxide analysis to correspond with traffic analysis update conducted in the peer review.
  • $83,478, FHWA required more traffic analysis for Third Street to be consistent with the traffic analysis update in the peer review.
  • $6,020, FHWA required more documents and legal sufficiency reviews.
  • $28,209, FHWA required reformatting two chapters contrary to its original direction; also, more printing costs.
  • The total to HKM Engineering was $895,979.

That all comes to roughly $3.6 million.

"These costs were reimbursed by Surface Transportation Program Urban funds, which are reimbursed 86.58 percent Federal and 13.42 percent State," wrote Gregg Wood, Public Works project development coordinator, in an e-mail.

While the STPU money is reserved for Russell Street for the next several years, Cundy said it's gone to other things in the past, too, such as new buses for Mountain Line.

***

The money hasn't gone to new pilings or a wider sidewalk, but the city maintains the bridge, and it seems to be holding its own.

The Montana Department of Transportation inspects it every couple of years, and in July 2010 the bridge scored on a "health index" 88 points out of 100. See the report on www.missoularedtape .com.

"From a purely structural standpoint, this bridge can be there a very long time and carry traffic a very long time," said bridge engineer Barnes. "So really the issue isn't so much, ‘How much longer can the bridge be there?' It's, ‘How long can it reasonably be able to meet the needs of Missoula?' "

That's where the "sufficiency rating" comes in, and in this respect, the bridge is in need of an upgrade, according to MDT. The "sufficiency rating" takes into account the amount and kinds of traffic using the structure.

On a 100 point scale, the Russell Street Bridge scored just 55 points in its last two inspections. It's not a stellar ranking, but it's not in the toilet either.

The report notes things such as cracks, delaminations and even a missing nut, but Barnes also said it shouldn't be confused with a school report card.

"By the time you're down to a 60, you're a failure," Barnes said of the academic scale. "That is not the way bridges are ranked. Rankings use the full scale. Of course, by the time you get down to a rating scale of 10, it's not a very good bridge."

The inspection report deems the Russell Bridge "structurally deficient" and "eligible for rehabilitation," federal definitions based on complex formulas, Barnes said. He said this piece of infrastructure is safe, but it was built in 1957 and doesn't meet today's needs.

"We would replace this bridge because one of the overriding issues on this is traffic count," Barnes said. "You have a lot of traffic."

***

So the project awaits its next paper milestone. A record of decision on the EIS is expected out early this year, but construction can't happen right away.

Bender said work on Third Street is expected to start next year, but work on the first phase of Russell will take longer. First, there's preliminary engineering to be done, and then right-of-way acquisition. And he said buying right-of-way can be a time-consuming chore.

Several different pots of money, including a $6 million earmark, will pay for upgrades. For the next three years, the STPU money for the first phase of Russell is scheduled like this: In 2011, $1.6 million for preliminary engineering; in 2012, $7.5 million for right-of-way acquisition and incidentals; in 2013, $8.8 million for construction and engineering.

That's the optimistic scenario. A planning document notes the first Russell phase as Broadway to Mount, but Bender said the first round of the project won't go into the Third Street intersection.

As wearying as the project has been, he said it has taught the city lessons about better ways to take on infrastructure in the future. For starters, he said the city will work hard to resist efforts by the state to force environmental impact statements for road projects.

"Historically, all our other projects had been under the standard environmental assessment process, which is a lot less burdensome and a lot less expensive," Bender said.

He said the enormous amount of detailed engineering work that goes into an EIS ratchets up the cost, but there may be a bright side: "It could be argued that this will benefit us when we go into the design, that we will have a lot more data and information going into the design as we do with a typical project. I hope that's the case."

Bender also said the city moved too fast on Russell Street. It already had committed to doing Third Street, and was just months from having a project there approved. Then, it decided to take on Russell Street, too, and when Third Street got pulled into the EIS, everything stalled.

"I guess the third lesson is we probably bit off too much at one time," Bender said.

City officials presumed they would have enough money to do both Russell and Third streets, he said but costs jumped, and state and federal funding have been stagnant.

He estimates that construction on the north end of Russell won't start for at least three years, and more likely after five years. But he said maybe having a solid EIS in place will help push the project along more quickly.

"There is high interest on the state's part to get the bridge built because of its condition and the age of it. So we're hopeful there's some way to expedite it," Bender said.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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