State and federal reviews of the South Avenue Bridge documents are moving forward, after a one-month hiatus over concerns with the direction the Missoula County Commission wanted to take.
Dwayne Kailey, an administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation, said that after a Feb. 13 meeting in Helena with the commissioners, the state put its review of environmental documents for the project on hold so it didn’t add any more cost to the county if it decided not to move forward. If that is the course of action taken, the county will be responsible for repaying about $1 million in federal funds that were used for the environmental reviews and related costs.
“We were concerned that if the county proceeded with withdrawing the project, there would be cause for federal reimbursement, and we didn’t want to add to the cost for the county,” Kailey said on Friday. “We had an email exchange roughly a week ago and put it back in the process.”
In an email to Commissioner Josh Slotnick on Thursday, Kailey wrote that his office and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) are completing their reviews of environmental documents submitted to them in November 2018 by HDR, the engineering firm hired by the county.
The next step calls for the state and federal agencies to submit their comments to be addressed by HDR and the county.
Dan Harmon with HDR said once they receive the comments — if any — from the two agencies, they will respond, and also expect to hold a formal, public informational meeting, which is part of their contract with the county.
“As part of the process, once we submit the environmental documents to the agencies, which has been formally done, we basically are on hold until we receive comments back from them or receive additional formal direction,” Harmon said. “No one has asked us to stop work; we just did at this point because we fulfilled our scope of work and submitted it. We can’t do anything more until we get something back.”
Kailey wasn’t sure when the state and federal comments will be returned to HDR and the county.
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After the public process, the final document will be submitted for signing by MDT and FHWA, according to Kailey. HDR then will move toward finalizing the design, and when that’s 60 percent to 70 percent completed, MDT and the county will discuss utility relocation and right-of-way acquisitions.
When the design phase is 90 percent completed, MDT and Missoula County will discuss the construction phase.
“To give you some specifics that we have (somewhat dated); based on discussions with Missoula County last October (2018), we believed the design would be complete by August of 2020,” Kailey wrote in the email. “Given that schedule, funding levels and priorities of all off-system and on-system bridges, we scheduled funding available for this project in the federal fiscal year of 2023, with construction beginning in the calendar year of 2023.”
Clarification of the process comes after what state and federal officials called a “highly unusual” situation in which Slotnick and Commissioner Dave Strohmaier disputed statements and analysis made by HDR. In particular, the two outlined their concerns in a 14-page document that generally called for more information and additional environmental analysis.
Strohmaier in particular had campaigned in 2016 in support of rehabilitating the historic one-lane Maclay Bridge instead of constructing the South Avenue Bridge, which has been in the development pipeline since 1994. The new bridge would be about half a mile from the present structure over the Bitterroot River.
At this point, the plan calls for mainly federal funds to be used for the proposed $12.8 million South Avenue Bridge. If the commission throws out previous commissioners’ decisions to move forward with that project and instead rehabilitate the Maclay Bridge, which is considered substandard and weight-limited, the county would need to seek funding elsewhere.
All of the commission members were out of the office this week, and Strohmaier didn’t return a cellphone call seeking comment. But both Slotnick and Commission Chair Cola Rowley welcomed the clarification from Kailey, adding that while they’re moving forward, the outcome of the environmental review documents remains unknown and they’re not sure which direction they’ll decide to pursue.
“The solution is in the process and we should be moving forward with that,” Slotnick said on Friday.