Higgins Bridge Renovation

A pedestrian crosses the intersection where South Third Street West meets the south end of the Higgins Avenue Bridge on Thursday. When the bridge is renovated beginning in 2020, plans for the intersection call for eliminating the stranded and crumbling pedestrian island and building an expanded public plaza from the corner.

Details on how the Higgins Bridge renovation could change the Hip Strip and Caras Park were released this week, as engineering studies found how some different options would shake out.

The bridge renovation, set to begin next year, will include major changes to the pedestrian walkways on either side of the bridge, both tripling the sidewalk width and moving the bike lane onto that side of the railing, separate from the car traffic. On the south side of the bridge, at the intersection with Third Street, an expanded public plaza is in the works for what is currently simply a sidewalk corner.

The original plans for the plaza, a bulb-out from the corner currently occupied by the Bathing Beauty Beads shop, included having the concrete area raised above the sidewalk level, with a railing containing it. To better comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act standards and eliminate the need for stairs, the study analyzed how dropping the plaza to sidewalk level would look.

Missoula Public Works director Jeremy Keene, who is also serving as interim Development Services director, presented the results of the engineering studies to the Missoula City Council public works committee Wednesday. Keene said the changes to the Hip Strip Plaza would save nearly $33,000, according to the study.

As part of the renovation, he said the Montana Department of Transportation would pay for the existing sidewalk on that section of Higgins to be replaced at the same time, as it is slightly more sloped than ADA standards allow.

Another part of the study looked at reusing the staircase that connects Caras Park and the west side of the bridge. The original plans included building a new staircase, which some community members didn’t like as much as the current set.

“What we’ve heard from the public is that there is a desire to keep the stairs, and we want to move forward with the recommendation to relocate the stairs with some modifications that we will continue looking into,” said Keene.

Reusing the staircase could cost over $100,000 after the necessary modifications it would require, the study found. But that is about the same cost as building a new stair set, and after hearing community feedback on the new design, Keene said the city would move forward with plans to reuse the stairs.

The design of the current stairs would put them directly over a sewer line after the bridge widening, which was one of the main reasons the original plans included a new stair design. But Keene said the study found the stairs could be built onto an arched foundation, allowing access to the utility lines when needed.

The stairs also need to be cut down to size, as the pedestrian walkway will be a bit lower than the current height the stairs attach to, and some modifications to the steps and railings are necessary to meet ADA standards. The turquoise stairs would also be painted black, Keene said, partially to cover some current corrosion, but mainly to meet design standards the city adopted for downtown infrastructure. 

Reusing the stairs would also cause at least two trees in Caras Park to be removed, the commemorative boulder plaque will need to be moved, and the decorative brick pavers will be affected during construction, the study found.

The bridge rehab project is expected to cost about $18 million and last a year and a half, according to the MDT. Only about $1.7 million will come from the city. Construction bids will open this winter.

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