Construction of the proposed South Avenue Bridge is inching forward, while the future of the Maclay Bridge is less certain based on final draft documents recently released by the Montana Department of Transportation.

In October, MDT released four environmental documents on the long-debated project, first proposed in 1994. The effort involves constructing a new two-lane bridge across the Bitterroot River at the western end of South Avenue, to connect with River Pines Road on the west side of the river.

The single-lane Maclay Bridge, which has significant weight limitations and is about half a mile downstream of the proposed new bridge, would either be removed, upgraded or left for use for foot traffic.

The project moved forward as a “categorical exclusion” under state and federal studies, which means it wasn’t expected to either individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the environment, and more expensive analyses weren’t needed.

After blow-back about using the categorical exclusion, a study ensued to see whether that was the proper way to proceed. One of the October documents, a supplemental 90-page study, supports the decision.

“That means they don’t need any more documentation,” said County Commissioner Jean Curtiss, who is ready for the South Avenue Bridge to get underway. The total estimated cost for the new bridge is about $12.8 million, which includes $12.6 million for bridge and roadway construction and $200,000 to acquire right of way.

Another document includes alternatives for the Maclay Bridge Preservation. The two options under consideration for rehabilitating the Maclay Bridge range in cost from $12.5 million to $14 million, and while they include the right-of-way costs, they don’t calculate in the relocation of about five residences.

“Although rehabilitation appears to result in a lower construction cost, rehabilitation does not appear to be cost-effective or practical based on the impacts and additional considerations …,” the report notes. “Retrofit of the existing bridge to meet the project purpose and need does not appear to be a practical option.”

The document didn’t include the cost of turning the bridge into foot-traffic only.

A biological assessment also was posted online at southavenuebridge.com, and notes the South Avenue Bridge will have little effect on the impact on a variety of endangered or threatened species in the area. However, it may affect both the yellow-billed cuckoo and bull trout, both of which are listed as threatened species.

The fourth form is a MDT worksheet that supports the categorical exclusion.

“All the documents were the result of discussions with another group a year ago,” said Erik Dickson, the county’s assistant director of public works. “At this point, it’s in the Montana Department of Transportation’s hands for review; I think that will take four to six weeks.”

Dickson added that the state and federal agencies then will look for the county to sign off on the project. That comment kicked off a lively discussion among commission members, as well as supporters and opponents of the project who crammed into the county’s conference room Tuesday afternoon to make their voices heard.

Curtiss noted that the last time they were close to a final decision, the county was in favor of the project.

“We said we supported a high-quality, well-done project,” Curtiss said. “In some ways, we’re saying that we believe they had a good process.”

But Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said they also gave the community the impression that there would be meetings to take public comment on the most recently released documents, but that doesn’t appear to be part of the upcoming process.

“To be fair, I have growing concerns about this process,” Strohmaier said. “I haven’t looked at this latest iteration, but … I have growing concerns about this categorical exclusion. That said, I think the process needs to move forward and we should schedule a public meeting.”

Commissioner Cola Rowley added that it doesn’t make sense for the county to gather more comments if the state and federal transportation agencies weren’t going to listen to them.

Curtiss noted that they already have taken public comments to make sure their concerns were addressed in the documents that were recently released. Instead, she suggested more of an open house format in which the project designers could meet with the public to explain the documents.

Bob Schweitzer, a supporter of the bridge rehabilitation and a member of the Maclay Bridge Alliance, said he believes the Federal Highway Administration at some point will take additional comments on the project based on federal laws. That’s due in part to the bridge being designated a national historic structure about a year ago.

But Don St. Peter, who supports the new bridge, noted the project has gone through almost two decades of review, involving three reports that all came to the same conclusion — build the South Avenue Bridge.

“The individuals who are focusing on the process don’t care about the process — they just don’t like the decision,” St. Peter said. “Three reports, from three separate entities, came to the same conclusion. Talking about public meetings and whether the public process has been followed doesn’t make sense. It’s been followed.”

Rowley also noted that if the commission decides to back down in its support of the project, they could be on the hook for about $1 million already incurred in moving the project forward.

“And does our support or non-support mean anything now?” she questioned. “If we don’t sign, are they not going forward? If that’s the case, then we are the de facto decider.”

Curtiss added that it was the county that requested moving ahead with the work in recent years, signing a resolution to that effect three years ago.

“They didn’t want us jumping off the horse in the middle of the stream when all this money was invested,” Curtiss said. “It’s been federal money spent, at our request, to go forward.”

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