Missoula County learned Wednesday it has a couple of options when it comes to the debate over whether to construct a new South Avenue Bridge or rehabilitate the Maclay Bridge, but at least one could prove costly to local taxpayers.
County commissioners can dispute findings from what state and federal officials call a “nationally known, reputable” consulting firm the county hired to do the environmental review of the project. The county then can present any “information gaps” in the review to the state and federal transportation agencies that are funding the proposed $12.8 million South Avenue Bridge.
Those agencies could then alter the course of work if they agree the gaps are substantial or show some significant change has occurred since the analysis was done and the document submitted to the Montana Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration.
Alternatively, the commission can throw out previous commissioners’ decisions to move forward with the South Avenue Bridge, and repay about $1 million in federal funds that were used for the environmental reviews and related costs.
If the county decided to instead rehabilitate the substandard, weight-limited, one-lane Maclay Bridge, Missoula County would have to use its own road and bridge tax dollars to pay for upgrades. Estimates for that are in the $12.5 million to $14 million range, which doesn’t include the costs of possibly relocating five residences.
Or the commission can simply accept the work by HDR engineering, and continue to pursue the South Avenue Bridge, which has been in the development pipeline since 1994 and whose construction currently is anticipated to begin in 2023.
Regardless of which path is chosen, officials with the Montana Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration called it a “highly unusual” situation during a meeting Wednesday with the county commissioners in Helena. They mainly were curious why some county commissioners were disputing statements and analysis made by the firm they hired to do the analysis.
“To complete the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) you hired a consultant … a big firm that has the expertise to do the analysis,” said Brian Hasslebach, a supervisor with the Federal Highway Administration. “We could accept comment on (the county analysis) but that would be highly unusual because the expectation when that was submitted was that it was the county’s analysis.”
Hasselbach added he had “the highest level of trust and comfort that the processes and procedures had been fulfilled.”
Wednesday’s debate highlighted Missoula County’s internal struggle over whether to move forward with the long-debated South Avenue Bridge as commissioners struggled to explain why some of them aren’t accepting their own consultant’s conclusions that support the project.
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Representatives from HDR consulting, which did the county’s analysis, weren’t at Wednesday’s meeting, but Commissioner Cola Rowley said they told her the environmental review is “thorough and complete.”
In October, HDR released four documents, including one that ran 90 pages, outlining why their review, known as a “categorical exclusion” based on the limited anticipated environmental impacts, was sufficient.
“We hired a professional engineering consultant and have our own county engineer, and they’re in agreement,” Rowley said. “It’s us non-professional engineers who are not in agreement with our professional engineers. This is what appears to be an internal battle.”
Commissioner Dave Strohmaier kept pushing for reconsideration of the proposed South Avenue Bridge. Previous commissioners had supported the South Avenue Bridge, including Rowley. But Strohmaier, who has served two years, and newly elected Commissioner Josh Slotnick said they’re not sure they want to be married to the old decisions.
Strohmaier added that as much as he respects HDR, he was a former consultant and they “can make mistakes.” He questioned why they couldn’t just use the earmarked federal funding to rehabilitate the historic Maclay Bridge.
“Much of this rises out of some interest in revising whether the bridge rehab would satisfy the purpose and need that kicked this off in the first place,” said Strohmaier.
Ed Toavs, an MDT district administrator, said one of the initial studies already considered that, and found the impacts of rehabilitating the Maclay Bridge were much greater than moving the crossing half a mile upstream to the South Avenue site.
“The only alternative from what I see is dropping the project and doing a county-funded project,” Toavs said, which would include the repayment of the $1 million for the South Avenue Bridge.
Hasselbach gave them a little more wiggle room, saying if they could prove the South Avenue Bridge alternative wasn’t “feasible and prudent,” the decision to move forward with it could be reconsidered. But he was quick to add previous studies considered and decided against the Maclay Bridge reconstruction, and any new justification would need to be “thorough and compelling.”
Under the current plan, the proposed two-lane 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.