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The scent of hot asphalt permeated the air near the Russell Street Bridge Wednesday afternoon as front-end loaders, bobcats and belly-dump trucks performed an intricate dance to the tune of their back-up beeps.

Danny Pfeifer, an operations engineer with the Montana Department of Transportation, raised his voice over the din as he led a tour of Missoula city councilors to update them on the $29 million bridge replacement project.

“It’s a big job with a lot of pieces,” Pfeifer said. “Dick Anderson [Construction] is a good contractor and sees how important it is to schedule these right. It’s pretty complicated to manage this job and have all of the pieces in place when they need to be.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Pfeifer and Shane Stack, a preconstruction engineer with MDT, gave a brief presentation to the council members before leading them on the tour. Stack noted that it’s been 20 years since the bridge replacement plan was conceived.

“Next year, it will be old enough to drink, go celebrate,” Stack said, chuckling. “The first record of information in our files was from 1999, but it wasn’t until late 2011 that the environmental document was created.”

The bridge replacement work started in April 2018, and is on track to finish by its target date in December 2019.

“But we are not out of it yet, and there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Pfeifer added.

Eventually, the new five-lane bridge will replace the current two-lane structure, with the five lanes stretching to South First Street. Included on the bridge are slightly elevated 12-foot corridors on either side reserved for bikes and pedestrians.

“One benefit of the project is we’re putting in a lot more bike/pedestrian facilities,” Stack said.

Workers have started to build the eastern half of the structure, and on Wednesday were pouring concrete into the 6-foot-diameter casing to finish the second of two piers for that half of the bridge.

“The drill goes down 80 feet, pulls out the rocks and dirt in the core; the bit is a casing with an auger in it,” Pfeifer explained. “The casing fills with water, and when we pour in the concrete it’s heavier than the water, so it pushes it out.”

He stood on a muddy wooden temporary platform stretching above the river, where piles of rebar were scattered about and the drilling equipment sat to the north. Pfeifer turned to the south where the heavy metal plates already are in place on top of the lower portion of the bridge, and pointed to where the girders will stretch from the shore to the pier.

Eventually, nine girders will be in place, running across the river. They range from 4 ½ feet in depth to 7 feet, and come in sections of 88 to 98 feet long, trucked in from the Midwest. Crews will “field splice” the girders, using 188 bolts per splice. Each girder has four splices.

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“We are basically building half a bridge at a time,” Pfeifer told the council. “There’s a lot more to this job than meets the eye.”

The finished bridge deck will be about 5 feet to 5 ½ feet taller than the existing structure, ensuring it’s out of the flood zone.

Pfeifer and Stack expect to move traffic from the old, west side of the bridge to the new east side bridge in January, and demolish the old structure beginning in February before starting on that half.

Meanwhile, crews also are working on the bike and pedestrian aspects of the project that cut under the bridge along the shore on both sides of the river, as well as a few more blocks to the south, where a tunnel will carry pedestrian and bike traffic underneath Russell Street as part of the continuation of the Milwaukee Trail.

They’ve also dug up and relocated a wide range of utilities, from irrigation and sewer pipes to electrical, phone and cable television lines.

“That’s a big order in this urban job in a tight area,” Pfeifer said. “When you’re digging underground you’re not going to do it quickly when you’re dealing with all these utilities.”

Fresh sidewalks are in place along the eastern side of Russell Street atop many of those utilities.

Council members thanked Stack and Pfeifer for the update, noting that while the project is difficult for commuters and people who live and work in the area, they haven’t gotten many complaints.

“Thank you for so much hard work,” Councilor Julie Merritt said. “I think the location of the pedestrian crossings work well; traffic doesn’t stop as well as I would like it to sometimes, but I’m really looking forward to the underpass. That will be super when it’s done.”

Councilor Jordan Hess added that work reflects on the good partnership between the city and MDT, but added that it’s taken up a lot of funding for the past 20 years.

“You could have a child and put that child through college before you’re done working on Russell Street,” Hess said. “It underscores the importance of how we are falling further and further behind in the infrastructure backlog. We’re stretching the dollars as much as possible but need to have more long-term funding sources.

“This isn’t just a local problem but a state and federal problem experienced by cities across the country.”

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