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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.

Missoula County is asking the state to take over the much-debated South Avenue Bridge project, the second time it has done so in the last five years.

In a letter County Commissioners are set to discuss sending Tuesday morning, the county will ask the Montana Department of Transportation to claim oversight of the planned bridge project that would replace Maclay Bridge as the main Bitterroot River crossing west of Reserve Street.

The bridge has been fiercely debated by people living near the proposed site on South Avenue and the area around Maclay Bridge. Residents near the proposed site generally are against the bridge, fearing increased traffic on the currently dead-end street.

Since being elected in 2016, Commissioner Dave Strohmaier has been an advocate for his constituents who are against the bridge, breaking what had previously been the commission's unanimous support of the project. Since Strohmaier was elected, both other commissioners have also been replaced by new representatives.

In late 2019, despite some level of opposition to the project, the commissioners kept the project in motion by sending environmental review documents on to the state for approval. If eventually approved by both the state and Federal Highway Administration, engineers will proceed with the project design.

But the county appears to be getting cold feet about the project that was initially set in motion by commissioners who are no longer on the board. Rather than fighting the project, it would give up its role managing the project.

“The current agreement was reached with a completely different set of commissioners, and the current commission believes MDT is better suited to deliver the project,” the draft letter reads. “If MDT agrees to manage it, Missoula County would still request to play a major role in the development of the project, and the county also would request that HDR be retained to complete design activities.”

In 2015, Missoula County attempted to give control of the project to MDT after a federal spending bill did not pass, leaving the county with significantly less money to manage the project and the 25% of costs the state was requiring the county to put into the project, though it would be reimbursed once the project was complete.

But months later, the funding bill was passed, and MDT convinced the county to continue managing the project by removing the 25% cost burden. But, fearing the county would renege on the project without being forced to pay into it, MDT asked commissioners to sign a resolution committing the county to the project. It did, though the current commissioners have maintained they shouldn’t be held to agreements signed by previous commissions.

It was unclear from the county’s press release announcing the letter whether there were any reasons it wanted to give up managing the project beyond the current commissioners not wanting to be the ones responsible for it.

Missoula County Public Works director Shane Stack was not available for comment Monday evening.

The bridge is set to be funded in large part with federal and state gas tax funds, not Missoula County property taxes.

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