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County: South Ave. Bridge better off under state oversight

County: South Ave. Bridge better off under state oversight

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Maclay Bridge file

A vehicle crosses Maclay Bridge over the Bitterroot River in early December. The South Avenue Bridge project would see Maclay Bridge replaced with a two-lane bridge a couple hundred yards upstream.

The Missoula County Commissioners said the decision to ask the state to take over the South Avenue Bridge project was a move to put it in line with all other similar projects in the state, rather than give up control of a project it didn’t support.

County commissioners signed a letter Tuesday requesting the Montana Department of Transportation assume oversight of the hotly debated bridge proposal. The proposed bridge has brought fierce opposition and support from neighbors of the proposed site and the Maclay Bridge, which the proposed bridge would replace.

In the letter, commissioners said they believed the state would be better suited to oversee the construction because the current members of the commission were not involved in the agreements that set the project in motion.

But at the commission’s Tuesday meeting, Commissioner Josh Slotnick said the request had less to do with the county’s commitment to the federally funded project, but more so that the state manages all other instances of bridge repairs and constructions similar to the South Avenue proposal, so it made more sense for them to take on this one as well.

“Having MDT take this on is consistent with how they typically operate,” Slotnick said. “Our handing this off is not a reflection of our commitment or a lack of commitment, but actually creating a pathway of work that is more consistent with how bridges are typically delivered.”

This isn’t the first time Missoula County has asked the state to take over the project, despite actually going through a process to become certified to do it in-house.

Former commissioner Jean Curtiss served on the board throughout the majority of the decade-plus history of the proposed bridge’s development. She said the county became certified to carry out federally funded projects like this one so that it would be more able to get local public input on the controversial project.

Curtiss said Tuesday that the former Public Works director, Greg Robertson, had experience completing federally funded projects from his previous work in Washington state, and the commissioners saw the increased public involvement as a benefit to the project.

But in 2015, after federal funding the county was expecting didn’t come through as expected, it tried to hand off the project to the state. Congress eventually passed the funding bill and the state convinced the county to continue overseeing the project.

Shane Stack, the current Missoula County Public Works director in charge of the project, previously worked for MDT and brings a keen understanding of both the county and state responsibilities. He said he thinks it would be beneficial for both the county and the state to switch oversight of the project to the state.

Because of the complexities of federal funding and the competition between states for that money, Stack said MDT works to spend all federal funds it receives in a given year on necessary projects, or risks losing significant funding that it generally relies on.

With the South Avenue Bridge project estimated to cost $15 million, far more than most other bridge maintenance projects the state is working on, MDT sees the project as risky, Stack said. If it fails to be built in the year it receives federal funding, MDT would struggle to use that money responsibly on other projects, and would in turn risk losing the money, plus additional federal funding it was essentially signaling it doesn’t need, he said.

With the county overseeing, Stack said it only further complicates the levels of bureaucratic review needed, rather than just letting the state manage it. He said the state should be able to feel less risk if it is under MDT's purview, rather than the county’s.

“When I was at MDT, I always had an idea of what projects were risky projects, and what our solution was if it was going to fail — where we were going to spend that money,” Stack said. “In the off-system bridge program, where your average project cost is around $1.5 million, that’s a lot of projects to have to have ready as backup if one of this size doesn’t happen on time. So just for their own ability to control risks in their own program, it actually makes sense for them to manage this project.”

As of now, the bridge is scheduled to be built in 2024. It was previously scheduled for 2023, but Stack said the move was a sign that MDT sees the riskiness of the project and wants all the plans to be rock solid before moving forward.

In their letter to MDT, the commissioners said they would be willing to meet with state officials to discuss what the transfer would entail if the state has an interest in accepting the project.

County officials said changing oversight of the controversial project would be best for both the state and the county.

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