School buses should not be driving over the Maclay Bridge as it continues to deteriorate, according to a decision by the Montana Department of Transportation.

The historic one-lane bridge crossing the Bitterroot River west of Missoula has been deteriorating while the heated decades-long debate over whether or not to build a new modern two-lane bridge at the west end of South Avenue carries on.

In an email sent Friday, Jan. 10, Amanda Jackson, a bridge management engineer with MDT, wrote to Missoula County’s deputy Public Works director Erik Dickson saying that she did not think school buses should be allowed to drive over Maclay Bridge.

She said that after rating the load capacity of the bridge, MDT found the bridge was marginally able to carry a bus now, and it was continuing to deteriorate.

“With a rating factor barely above 1.0, the deteriorating condition of the bridge, and the fact that this is a load rating without impact, I am not comfortable allowing school buses to cross the MaClay Bridge [sic] at this time,” she wrote. “If this causes an undue hardship for the school district, we can negotiate possible ways to allow school buses to cross the bridge for the remainder of the school year. Beginning next year, they will need to find new routes that do not cross the bridge.”

In October, holes through the pavement of the bridge were reported, prompting the county to replace sections of asphalt at each joint of the bridge.

Since then, when the bridge was closed for repairs, school buses have been using alternate routes, declining to return to the bridge even after it reopened.

Dickson told the Missoulian on Wednesday that after the county performed the necessary repairs, MDT wanted to retest the bridge to see if the weight limits had changed at all. 

After Dickson received the email from MDT about the bridge’s safety, he forwarded it to Beach Transportation’s general manager Bob Mitchell on Monday, Jan. 13, writing that after reviewing MDT’s recommendation the County Commissioners felt school buses should continue using alternate routes they’ve been using since October.

"I mentioned to her that you had been using alternate routes since October so the impact wouldn’t feel so sudden for you and the affected parents at this point, but she still offered the thought about finishing out the school year with the historic routes," Dickson wrote. "I shared this information with the commissioners this morning and while there was a question about whether or not a formal action by them was necessary, they are in support of MDT’s first position of not allowing school buses on the bridge."

Dickson said Wednesday that Beach Transportation later asked if the bridge was safe enough to handle a bus with no children on it. He said it was determined that would be safe enough, allowing the bus contractor to save time when the buses are empty.

Mitchell did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

The Maclay Bridge is classified as “functionally obsolete” by state and federal standards. Because it is a one-lane bridge on a two-way street, it has a recommended 100-vehicle-per-day limit. In 2010, the state counted an average 2,610 vehicles per day.

Since Maclay Bridge replacement or rehabilitation options were first investigated in 1994, the South Avenue Bridge project was identified as the best option out of 16 studied, including various rehabs and leaving the bridge as is.

Late last year, county commissioners sent final environmental analysis documents on to the state and federal authorities, and if approved, construction is scheduled to begin on the $15 million project in 2024.

On Tuesday, Missoula County Commissioners sent a letter to MDT asking the state to take over management of the project. Commissioners said they asked the state to take over it because the state oversees all other similar projects, and they believed the state was better positioned to oversee the project.


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