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maclay bridge 2011

Vehicles cross the one-lane Maclay Bridge over the Bitterroot River in this Missoulian file photo.

HDR Consulting, which did Missoula County’s engineering analysis on the proposed South Avenue Bridge, vigorously defended its work Tuesday during a public meeting with county commissioners and state and federal officials.

“We have fully met our contractual obligations and the scope of that work,” said Dan Harmon, and HDR project manager. “We feel we have done a thorough job in presenting the draft that’s in front of the state and Federal Highway Administration, and have no further changes we want to make at this time.

“We stand tall on what we have done and will await comment from the agencies to tell us if we need to address something.”

And despite 14 pages of questions on the analysis by County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier that pushed for setting aside that analysis and doing a more in-depth study of possible environmental consequences, representatives from both the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) said they have seen nothing to warrant changing what’s already been produced.

“Absence of any new information that suggests otherwise, we are comfortable with what’s in front of us and that a categorical exclusion is correct under NEPA,” said Brian Hasselbach, a supervisor with FHWA who was referencing the National Environmental Policy Act. “Absent any information, (a new review) is a decision the county would have to make and fund on its own.”

Harmon said he didn’t review Strohmaier’s 14 pages of questions, and reiterated that his firm sees no gaps in their analysis or work.

But Strohmaier continued to contend there are information gaps and deficiencies that warrant a different level of analysis. In his document, Strohmaier questioned nearly every aspect of the HDR analysis, from the bridge deficiencies to controversies over the right-of-way acquisition for both the new and old bridges. He also noted a study from an out-of-state engineer hired by Maclay Bridge supporters that said it was more feasible and less expensive to rehabilitate the existing structure.

Among his concerns, Strohmaier wants HDR to fully examine bridge rehabilitation documents for preservation of historic structures, including those from other states, and to more fully examine the Maclay Bridge rehabilitation option. He also wants quantification of delay times for emergency vehicles crossing the Bitterroot River on both bridges. In addition, he wants HDR to take a closer look at the cumulative impacts to farmlands, floodplains, noise and threatened and endangered species.

“I continue to contend … that there really are some gaps and deficiencies that warrant a different level of analysis, that warrant more than CE,” or categorical exclusion, Strohmaier said.

Many of those analyses were done years ago during the “pre-NEPA” process in which the federal government decides which level of analysis to pursue, in cooperation with MDT, who oversees the Montana Environmental Policy Act on this type of project. In the course of the analyses, the county, state and federal government decided that the categorical exclusion was the route to take, officials said.

Heidi Bruner with the FHWA added that regardless of the level of environmental document, the analysis remains the same.

“When we prepare the documents we identify all of the resources present and see how the project impacts those resources,” Bruner said.

They added that other one-lane bridges replaced in Gallatin and Flathead counties were funded in other ways or by other agencies, and the Maclay Bridge wouldn’t fall under those categories or would need more local tax dollars for it to be rehabilitated.

The county, state and federal government have been considering a new bridge across the Bitterroot River for two decades. Tuesday's meeting came after Strohmaier and newly-elected Commissioner Josh Slotnick said they don't want to be married to decisions made by previous commissions, and proposed reconsideration of the options.

Under the current plan, the 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.

State and federal representatives said Missoula County could decide to push the study in another direction, but it would be responsible for those costs and also could lose out in the state and federal funding for the estimated $12.8 million for the proposed South Avenue Bridge. In addition, they could be forced to repay about $1 million in study costs from the governments, and end up using the county’s road and bridge tax dollars to pay for upgrades to the Maclay Bridge, which the government’s estimate puts in the range of $12.5 million to $14 million.

State and federal government representatives also said rehabilitating the Maclay Bridge wasn’t part of the “purpose and need,” which is to improve safety and transportation efficiency.

“To neglect those would be fairly major,” said Dustin Hirose, who is the lead bridge engineer and a project manager for HDR.

Strohmaier countered that assuming safety and efficiency could only be accomplished with a two-lane bridge is a scope “so constricted in that sense it’s hard to justify any other exceptions.”

“I take exception with that underlying premise,” he said. “I guess the debate somewhat is where is the tipping point between what satisfies the purpose and need of the project and what isn’t? You could address safety and efficiencies … with design exemptions.”

Harmon said the safety and “connectability” were looked at in a 2013 study, which brought them to the current HDR analysis, which is pending comments from FDT and FHWA. The county and state also could be at risk if a crash incurs if the Maclay Bridge is rehabilitated instead of constructing the new South Avenue Bridge.

“Missoula County hired us to do a job and provide our professional opinion and that’s what’s in our documents,” Harmon said. “We have no further changes we want to make.”

After the meeting, Slotnick said they now have a lot more information to go over before they decide how to proceed. No date was set for the next public meeting.

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