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Fly fisherman Trent Heichelbech was unaware of the controversy surrounding Maclay Bridge as he fished for trout upstream from the structure in February.

Missoula County will move forward with a plan to build a new bridge across the Bitterroot River.

In the face of lopsided testimony against the move, commissioners voted 3-0 Wednesday night to accept a study team’s recommendation to move forward with a plan to replace one-lane Maclay Bridge at the end of North Avenue with a two-lane span four blocks upstream.

They’ll ask the Montana Department of Transportation to continue development of a project to extend South Avenue across the Bitterroot and connect it with River Pines Road. It’ll be funded using federal Off-System Bridge Program money.

The comprehensive cost is estimated at $7.3 million, according to the study, although it seems certain it’ll rise much higher by the time the bridge and almost a half-mile of approaches are built.

No one is sure when that’ll be. Most assume the state and county will conduct an environmental impact study that entails another round of public participation and may not come up with the same conclusion the planning study did.

Commissioner Bill Carey said he went back and forth on the issue during the yearlong planning process.

“What occurs to me is, if we’re going to make an error in judgment we’re going to make it on the side of public safety,” he said.

Of the 44 people who testified at a hearing in the county administration building that lasted more than four hours, 32 spoke against the recommendation to build a new, modern bridge. Many supported a far less costly rehabilitation plan for the current bridge drawn up by Frank Muth, a Missoula engineer.

But county engineers Erik Dickson and Lewis YellowRobe argued Muth’s plan didn’t take into account future rehabilitation needs, and its estimated costs of less than $1 million did not address everything to bring the bridge up to safety standards.

“It’s also pretty clear a rehabilitation of that bridge isn’t going to be able to use this particular pot of (federal) money,” Commissioner Jean Curtiss said.

Michele Landquist, who chairs the commission this year, said she would prefer to build a new bridge in the same location as Maclay and worried, as she has in the past, about “unintended consequences.”

But she echoed Curtiss’ and Carey’s statements of faith in the findings of the study team that included MDT engineers and consultant Jeff Key of Robert Peccia and Associates of Helena.

“While I’m not thrilled with this report, (the recommendation) is a step forward and I think we have to take that forward step,” Landquist said.

***

The planning study spurred the creation of opposing groups – first the Maclay Bridge Alliance that hired Muth to study the rehabilitation plan, then the Maclay Bridge Common Sense Coalition that favored a new bridge at South Avenue. The process, which included four well-attended informational meetings over the past year, came under pointed criticism at many of them, and Wednesday night was no different.

Even before it started, opponents voiced displeasure at the meeting time of 4 p.m. and location. The crowd of 75 at the beginning of the hearing was smaller than any at the four previous meetings. It dwindled to 21 by the time the commissioners voted at 8:15 p.m.

Many of the arguments for and against a new bridge were familiar. Proponents said a bridge at South Avenue would enhance, not harm, the Target Range neighborhood and would be good for the river and for future generations.

“Creating the new bridge is an opportunity we can’t miss,” said Hannah Smith.

There were a lot of emotional arguments for saving Maclay Bridge, argued attorney Don St. Peter, “but emotion does not change facts,” such as the old bridge is functionally obsolete and it contributes to drownings.

Opponents maintained the study didn’t adequately consider the 2010 Target Range Neighborhood Plan. Don Loftsgaarden, a retired math professor, said the statistical analyses used to rank the various sites and alternatives were flawed and skewed toward the option of a new bridge at South Avenue.

Others took to task the assertion that such a bridge would solve traffic safety issues.

“A new bridge at the end of South Avenue will not make our neighborhood safer,” said Peggie Morrison.

But in the end, the commissioners said it was both the best route and their duty to move ahead with the new bridge option.

“The study models future needs and that’s our job – to address future needs,” Curtiss said. “If we were building a bridge today we would not build it there (at the site of Maclay Bridge). Rehabilitation is the equivalent of building a new bridge and I don’t think it’s prudent to invest money that way.”

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Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at (406) 523-5266 or by email at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian