Missoula County commissioners will meet with state and federal highway officials in Helena on Wednesday to seek direction on the long-debated South Avenue Bridge project.
At the end of the day they’ll probably find they’re in the driver’s seat in deciding how to proceed.
In a Jan. 31 letter, the commissioners requested the meeting with the Federal Highway Administration and Montana Department of Transportation ”to better understand our respective roles, responsibilities and decision-making authority” relative to the South Avenue Bridge project. The letter included 10 questions, some of them lengthy, involving the process and environmental review, as well as the funding.
The commissioners said in January they had issues with both the content and the process of the most recent environmental report prepared by their engineering consultant in conjunction with MDT. Before spending more money on the project, the commissioners want the advice of the state and federal agencies.
In particular, the commission asked if it was bound to a decision by previous commissioners to construct the South Avenue Bridge, or whether they could instead rehabilitate the historic one-lane Maclay Bridge, which is a half-mile away and has significant weight limitations.
Under the current plan, the proposed two-lane South Avenue Bridge would cross the Bitterroot River at the western end of South Avenue, to connect with River Pines Road on the west bank. The Maclay Bridge would be removed, upgraded or left for use by pedestrians and bicyclists.
Ed Toavs, a district administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation, said he can’t answer specific questions until the meeting. But his understanding of the process is that it is county driven and a county commission decision on how to proceed.
Years ago, the county took the necessary steps to become administrators for the project, which allowed them to hire a consultant to do the environmental review required under federal law.
Toavs said the South Avenue Bridge is what they call an “off-system bridge,” meaning that while the state and federal agencies have agreed to cover its construction costs, it would be a county-owned bridge.
“It’s a Missoula County project. It was their priority, so basically they are the project manager for it,” Toavs said. “Our role is oversight to make sure they’re in federal compliance.”
Doug Hecox, a Federal Highway Administration spokesman, agreed, noting the commission could move forward with the South Avenue Bridge project or shelve it along with the environmental review documents. If that’s done, however, it appears a new environmental review would be needed, since alternatives previously dismissed, including Maclay Bridge rehabilitation alternatives, weren’t evaluated in recent studies.
The project dates back to 1994, when an Environmental Assessment (EA) examined options to replace Maclay Bridge. The preferred alternative in the EA was the South Avenue Bridge, but a final decision by the Federal Highway Administration was never issued.
In 2002, Missoula County took another run at the project, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the county entered into an agreement with MDT to conduct the Maclay Bridge Planning Study. It was completed in 2013, and identified the South Avenue Bridge as the preferred alternative. That year, the county commission voted to pursue federal funding for the project. The commission reaffirmed its commitment to the South Avenue Bridge Project in 2015, and was certified to administer the federal aid project.
In October 2018, MDT released four documents on the long-debated project, with one supplemental 90-page study that supported the decision to perform a categorical exclusion (CE or CatEx) review instead of the costlier and more in-depth environmental assessment or a full-blown environmental impact statement.
Yet the current commissioners are pushing back against the categorical exclusion review, wondering in their letter if it was adequate and whether the state or federal agency would be willing to pursue the more in-depth reviews. They questioned how building a new bridge “where currently a two-lane road dead ends against an iconic river” wouldn’t have significant effects on the environment.
Hecox said the October documents outlined the reasons why the categorical exclusion was adequate.
Toavs added that in order to have the federal government pay for any additional environmental reviews, the county commission probably will have to explain what the categorical exclusion missed.
“The FHA will want to know why you want an environmental assessment, especially if you need federal aid to do that, and what requirements haven’t been met, and what’s been missed in the process with the county and their consultant,” Toavs said. “They have to prove an EA is in the best interest of the project, or the county could fund its own EA.”
The commissioners also asked if they chose to pursue a different alternative, whether they’d have to return about $1 million in federal funding already spent on the project. In addition, they wonder whether any allocated state or federal funding for the South Avenue Bridge could be diverted to address deficiencies with the Maclay Bridge. If that isn’t an option, they asked if any other funding sources are available to accommodate the Maclay Bridge rehabilitation.
And they asked if a statement in the 2013 Maclay Bridge Planning Study still stands, which noted “Ultimately, it is the discretion of the Missoula County Commission to select an option …”
“Has Missoula County government lost any discretion since that report was issued?” the commissioners wrote in their letter. “Moreover, are there any sideboards on that statement, and will MDT/FHWA only fund certain alternatives but not a rehab of Maclay Bridge?”
Toavs and Hecox both said they can’t answer those questions at this time.
“When you read their letter, a lot of what they’re asking I believe will involve an educational discussion so the county will have more information from the Federal Highway Administration regarding the rules that come with federal aid funding, and I suspect there will be follow-up questions after the meeting,” Toavs said. “Ultimately, it’s a county project and a county bridge, and the county has to make the decision moving forward.”
The MDT five-year tentative construction schedule has the South Avenue Bridge project slated to begin in 2023. Toavs said as it stands now, 87 percent of the estimated $12.8 million South Avenue Bridge cost is slated to be covered with federal funds, while the statewide off-system bridge program would cover the remaining 13 percent.
Interested parties who can't travel to Helena for the meeting are encouraged to listen to the conversation via a conference call. The call-in number is 1-888-204-5987, and the access code is 7040385.