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Work is expected to begin this spring on one of the most complicated and oft-delayed transportation infrastructure projects in Missoula history.

The replacement of the Russell Street bridge and the reconstruction and widening of a portion of Russell Street between the Clark Fork River and Dakota Street have been decades in the planning process, but the contract now officially has been signed.

Loran Frazier, a senior transportation engineer with WGM Group, an engineering, planning and consulting firm hired by the Montana Department of Transportation, said a contractor, Dick Anderson Construction, has been hired for the work.

It’s a $27.5 million project that has been planned in one form or another since the early 90s. Frazier said he recalls talking about the project in 1999. Work is expected to begin in March.

“It’s one of the most complex projects in my 35 years of doing highway designs,” Frazier explained. “From business accesses to ADA compliance to the dedicated bike lane to the high volumes of traffic to the utilities to the permit needed to modify the levy on the north side of the river, it took a lot of coordination.

"It’s been at least 17 years in the making. You try to minimize the business impacts of putting down a five-lane road there as best you can.”

The project will take two years to complete. Workers will first begin to build half of the new, five-lane bridge while leaving the old bridge open to traffic. Once the new portion is complete, traffic will be routed on to it while the other half of the bridge is built. When it’s done, the bridge will double in width and Russell Street will be five lanes, including a center turn lane, to Dakota Street. Currently, the bridge is only two lanes wide and the road is only three lanes wide and traffic is often congested.

There will be a dedicated bike lane going each way, and there will be a new undercrossing beneath the street at the Milwaukee Trail pedestrian path. There also will be new pavement and new sidewalks throughout the project.

HDR Engineering, a national firm with an office in Missoula, is doing the work on the new bridge, while WGM Group has been hired for the roadway, the retaining wall and the traffic signals. There most likely will be a new traffic signal at the intersection of Wyoming Street and Russell.

Allan Frankl with Dick Anderson Construction said that the construction of the underpass likely will cause some traffic re-routing.

"That's going to be done in halves," he explained. "They're going to have to route traffic around that and tear up the street, so there's going to be some congestion in there. It's going to be pretty tight."

Frankl said the upstream side of the new bridge will be built first, although construction can't start until July 1, 2018, to protect bull trout habitat in the spring. The existing bridge will be demolished after the upstream half is built, and then the second, downstream half will be built.

Frazier said the work on the bridge is driving the two-year schedule.

“They could do the work to the road in one season if they wanted,” he said. “But that’s kind of up to the contractor.”

He said the new undercrossing will be a lot more visually appealing than the Orange Street pedestrian undercrossing.

“The one under Orange Street is metal and this is going to be kind of an arch type with a retaining wall and a stacked rock type texture on it,” he said. “It’ll be a lot better to the eye than the one under Orange Street, but it will be similar size-wise.”

Frazier said he hopes the design of Russell will be a benefit to the entire community.

“A big shout-out goes out to the neighborhood associations and everyone who was a part of the planning process,” he said. “There was a lot of community involvement from the neighborhood groups. Those people did a lot of work.”

The design of Russell Street to the south of Dakota Street is still on hold, Frazier said, so there are no immediate plans for that portion.

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