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Bitterroot River South Ave. Bridge

The Missoula County-approved project to build a new bridge across the Bitterroot River rolls on, but it’s under threat of a lawsuit.

The Maclay Bridge Alliance, a vocal opponent of the South Avenue Bridge project, said the refusal by state transportation officials to conduct an environmental impact study that includes a less costly option of rehabilitating the one-lane Maclay Bridge downstream might prompt court action.

“We think the alternatives that considers fixing Maclay Bridge has to be considered in this decision,” said Fred Stewart of the alliance.

Nearly 100 people were in attendance Tuesday night as project manager Dan Harmon and his associates at HDR Engineering held the second of three scheduled public informational meetings at Big Sky High School.

The first was held in September 2015 and the final one should occur in late October or early November in the form of a county commissioners hearing.

That’s pending completion of an environmental document known as a categorical exclusion, which opponents insist isn’t sufficient review for such a far-reaching project that would extend South Avenue across the river in a northwesterly angle and tie in with River Pines and Blue Mountain roads.

A preferred alternative has been settled on. It’s projected to cost $13.1 million, including $300,000 to remove Maclay Bridge. It’s a balanced span configuration that misses by just $26,000 being the most inexpensive of seven original alternatives on the board – the most expensive coming in at over $29 million. A disadvantage is that the design calls for two piers in the active river channel.

Missoula County has taken the lead in the bridge project, but the funding comes from the Federal Highway Administration by way of the Montana Department of Transportation. Erik Dickson, the county’s project manager, said MDT has said the money won’t be available until 2020 at the earliest.

Tuesday’s meeting was set back three months after a helicopter survey discovered that federal floodplain mapping was incorrect. Harmon said it’s still wrong, but HDR eventually got the go-ahead to use its own mapping.

Geotechnical, hydrology and cultural resource studies are all but finished.

“Everything is completed to this point, including noise monitoring, as far as we can do,” said Harmon. “We were only able to go out on properties that we could legally access … There may be a need once the project goes further along and gets to the final design to get more access to properties.”

That leaves drafting and finalizing an environmental report. And that is leaving many South Avenue neighbors cold.

The new bridge – the first in a new location over the Bitterroot River in decades – would be an accident waiting to happen, Dani Headapohl said. Headapohl, a Missoula physician, said while she sees “some cultural insensitivity,” her main concern is safety.

“We are now converting a dead-end street to a high-speed highway and the scope of the project doesn’t allow them to look at what happens to the kids at the top of the hill or what happens to the high-school student who’s hurrying on his way to work and now that he’s not slowed by Maclay Bridge he can go really fast,” she said.

“It’s a concern I think that’s echoed by virtually every woman I know who has children or grandchildren or friends who have kids in that entire area.”

Stewart said a categorical exclusion to build a new bridge in a new location “doesn’t even come close to federal guidelines.”

The Maclay Bridge Alliance has hired a historic bridge consultant from Pennsylvania to inspect Maclay Bridge. Dr. Jai B. Kim will be in Missoula Sept. 18-21 and deliver his findings on Sept. 20 in the county administration building in the afternoon and at Target Range Elementary School at 7 p.m.

Kim is a professor of civil engineering emeritus at Rutgers University who has examples of bridges on the National Register of Historic Places that he’s successfully worked to rehabilitate, Stewart said.

“He has a way of introducing structural components on a bridge to bring it to a higher load rating and get rid of fractured bridge design – all reasons people give as to why Maclay Bridge can’t be fixed.”

In a news release issued Monday, the Maclay Bridge Alliance said county commissioners signed off on the South Avenue Bridge project last year after “being told that Maclay Bridge was obsolete and could not be considered for rehabilitation. MBA strongly disagrees.”

Reconsidering the old bridge “is the most important omission for the majority of our neighborhood residents,” Stewart said, adding those in the South Avenue neighborhood are “ready to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘No more.’

“If it becomes necessary,” he added, “in spite of our attempts to avoid it, we will use our right for judicial review.”

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