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A plan to connect a city trail in Missoula with a trail in Lolo could go to construction next year and include a $4.5 million non-motorized bridge across South Reserve Street and its five lanes of traffic.

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency voted in May to fund a portion of the bridge design and is now working to negotiate easements east and west of Reserve to accommodate the structure.

Missoula County also plans to bid construction of the seven-mile trail to Lolo in January. Work on both projects will likely begin in 2015 and total roughly $9 million.

“We’re trying to work through the easement agreements with the property owners on both sides of Reserve,” said Ellen Buchanan, director of MRA. “It’s a complicated process. We don’t want to adversely impact the businesses.”

MRA contracted with the engineering and planning firm DJ&A in February to find the safest way across Reserve Street, a north-south corridor that sees roughly 43,000 cars per day. A crossing at street level was eliminated as an option, as was a crossing below the roadway, both due to safety concerns.

With a bridge above grade identified as the preferred choice, MRA’s board of directors voted in May to fund 30 percent of the design to help identify the project’s cost and impacts.

DJ&A presented three designs this summer, including a rectangular bridge and an arched alternative. The arched design emerged as the top choice, along with a serpentine approach to the bridge.

“We needed to get the go-ahead from the board on which version they wanted to go forward with,” said Buchanan. “We’ll move forward with 100 percent design and build it next summer or fall. We’re trying to work in sync with construction of the Missoula to Lolo trail.”

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Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss said the county is working to get the trail portion of the project moving forward. The trail would connect the Bitterroot Branch Trail in Missoula with the trail along U.S. Highway 93 South in Lolo.

Curtiss said bids submitted for the trail project earlier this year came in $900,000 over budget, forcing commissioners to scuttle the proposal and send it back to the drawing board. The high costs were tied to Buckhouse Bridge – a bottleneck for area utilities.

Curtiss said a new alternative has since been drafted. It will include pedestrian walkways on each side of Buckhouse Bridge and won't require crews to remove the decking, as was the case initially.

“They went back and proposed a different way and got that approved by the state to provide the pedestrian space without taking the (deck) off,” Curtiss said. “We’ve also reduced the size of some of the retaining walls along the trail, and that’s been approved by the state.”

Curtiss said trail construction will go to bid in January. Once approved, the county will pay for the project using a $4.5 million federal discretionary grant. The funds must be obligated by the end of this year.

The county signed a contract last week shifting a portion of the project to DJ&A. It also met with the Larchmont Golf Course’s board of directors to begin resolving concerns over the bridge and its impact on the course.

“The design encumbers the seventh hole,” Curtiss said. “We’ve asked them to send a letter stating their concerns. We’re not against the project, but the easement (with the golf course) hasn’t been settled.”

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Nor has the easement been secured east of Reserve, though MRA is working to do so. Stockman Bank owns the property where the bridge ends east of the roadway and currently leases it to Aaron’s and the Loose Caboose.

Dave Lampi, general manager of Aaron’s, believes the trail connecting Missoula to Lolo would be good for the community. But he has concerns about the bridge and the potential impact on his store.

“We moved into this location because of the fantastic visibility it brought to our entire storefront, and we’re trying to work through any impacts the bridge would have on reducing that visibility,” said Lampi. “We’re at the early stages of planning and need to work through the process to ensure a good solution.”

Malcolm Lowe, owner of the Loose Caboose franchise in Missoula, also has concerns. He entered into a 10-year lease on the Stockman Bank property and opened his newest coffee kiosk at the location in May.

He said he was surprised and disappointed when plans for the bridge were presented – plans that included a grassy area where his business currently sits.

“I wasn’t on the picture,” he said. “I will literally be in the shadow of that bridge. All we’re doing is asking the city to show us other options, but we haven’t seen a single other option on where to put that bridge when there are plenty of options.”

Lowe described himself as an avid cyclist who has ridden the trail from Lolo to Hamilton before. He’s not against safe passage for cyclists and improving Missoula’s trail network, though he doesn’t believe the bridge is necessary.

He also believes the trail's route is flawed where it crosses U.S. Highway 93 at Blue Mountain Road. He called it a dangerous intersection for bicyclists and wondered if a second bridge will be necessary to span the highway at that location.

“If they had designed the trail correctly, it would come into Missoula on the other (south) side of the highway,” he said. “The way they’re doing it makes it an incredibly expensive project.”

Lowe said he could consider placing his businesses somewhere else on the property, so long as it benefits his customers. Buchanan said MRA plans to meet with Lowe and Aaron’s next week. DJ&A is also creating a video and graphics to show the visual impacts of the bridge.

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Cost estimates for the bridge range from $3.9 million to $5.3 million, depending on the final design. Buchanan said bonds would be issued with debt repayment coming from tax increment financing in Urban Renewal District 3.

The district encompasses much of south Missoula. The area has seen speedy redevelopment over the past year, sparked in part by the Woodbury Corp.'s purchase of the old Kmart site on Brooks Street and the Village 6 Theater on South Reserve.

Despite the district’s rejuvenation and all that it brings, Lowe is against using bonds to pay for the bridge. He believes it would keep the renewal district alive longer than initially billed.

“By taking on this project and bonding it, they will keep in existence this redevelopment district,” he said. “It’s a sneaky way of getting more funding, though this bridge will not bring in more tax revenues.”

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