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031613 higgins bridge peds

Steve Wojcik pushes his 2-year-old grandson Oden across the Higgins Avenue Bridge on Friday. A yearlong study by the state of Montana will look at the bridge, including the narrow pedestrian passages on both sides.

Sooner or later, Missoula’s Madison Street and Higgins Avenue bridges will undergo repairs, and if you have opinions on how to tackle those jobs now is the time to speak up.

The Montana Department of Transportation invites public discussion of future bridge work at an informational meeting this Wednesday. The event starts at 6 p.m. in the Missoula Senior Center and signals the beginning of community involvement in a planning study to identify bridge repair or even replacement options.

Ed Toavs, MDT’s district administrator for Missoula, said the brainstorming effort comes in response to low ratings on the bridges during recent inspections. Both of the river crossings scored below average on surface and structural components, Toavs said.

“They are safe for public use, I want to make that real clear.” Toavs said. “But it kind of got us thinking.”

The study will flesh out possible courses of action and evaluate the associated costs. MDT has contracted consulting firm DOWL HKM to conduct the roughly $160,000 study.

Laval Means, a planning manager with Missoula Development Services, said the city will work closely with MDT to make sure local needs are incorporated into any future projects.

Means said commonly voiced concerns include wider sidewalks, safer bike lanes, and greater pedestrian connectivity to areas like Caras Park. He stressed that the study is not meant to design anything, but rather to gather information on public desires.

“This is the time for you to point those out,” she said.

While the MDT will entertain short-term repair options, Toavs said he thinks revamping the 50-year-old structures likely represents a significant undertaking down the line – especially considering the recent Skagit River bridge collapse in Washington state.

“I hear that on the last bridge inspection that it was deemed safe,” Toaves said. “It’s really a large-scale issue. It’s not just things that people see on the surface.”

Toavs noted steady traffic flow and scouring by the Clark Fork River as a few of the phenomena which take their toll on Missoula’s bridges over time.

The planning study should wrap up by February 2014, Toavs said, at which point the MDT will look into affordable courses of action.

Brett Berntsen is a University of Montana journalism student and an intern at the Missoulian. He can be reached at (406) 523-5210 or be email at brett.berntsen@missoulian.com.

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