I attended the Missoula County commissioners' meeting with the Montana Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration "to seek clarity" regarding the Maclay Bridge replacement project, in Helena, Feb. 13.
Commissioner Nicole Rowley is very skilled at listening, asking clarifying questions and capturing what is said succinctly.
As a new commissioner, Josh Slotnick heard about the project and the process. He asked good questions and seems anxious to learn more from the consultants the county hired.
Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said more than once that he didn’t want to "get into the weeds" of the reports and continued to ask if the county has the authority to stop the South Avenue Bridge alternative, ignoring years of studies, and instead rehabilitate Maclay Bridge; if the federal dollars can be diverted to Maclay; if the county can require more environmental studies; and if the county has to pay back the million dollars if they don’t agree with the professionals.
I was the commissioner who nominated the bridge to be replaced using the Off-System Bridge Program; accepted the pre-Montana Environmental Policy Act/National Environmental Policy Act preliminary alternative for a new South Avenue bridge; signed the agreement to pay back the federal funds if the county stopped the project without a legitimate reason; with concurrence from both Maclay Bridge Alliance and Maclay Bridge Coalition, hired HDR, a nationally recognized professional firm, to do the MEPA/NEPA analysis under state and federal rules and regulations to be reviewed by state and federal agencies; directed HDR to study the cost and scope of a rehab of Maclay Bridge in detail to meet the goals of the project related to safety, etc.
I have read the many years of data. The answers are in those "weeds" — decades of research, science and engineering.
Elected officials have tough decisions to make and should use the best information available. It may not be the popular decision but will be the right decision for the good of the whole. When all the independent experts, from many disciplines, come to the same conclusion from different angles, the decision to be made is pretty clear.
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It is good that the commission plans to meet with HDR and the county engineer to "get into the weeds" and understand why they made the recommendation to build a new bridge rather than put bandages on the old one. An engineer's stamp on a project reflects their representation of facts, not political influence.
There is also a 12-month clock running that the commission was counseled is not like football. They can’t run the clock and say "oh I guess we aren’t building a bridge." They will be held to the payback clause.
When asked if the South Avenue Bridge is a done deal, Lynn Zanto, MDOT, said yes, unless a significant gap in the analysis of data is identified.
In summary, the professionals at the meeting said:
- The environmental analysis is thorough and complete according to MEPA/NEPA.
- If the county chooses to back out of this project, they will be required to pay back the money already spent — around $1 million.
- The Off-System Bridge Program will not pay for fixing Maclay.
- County taxpayers will have to pay for any additional environmental studies or fixing Maclay.
This is not a Target Range issue. Previous commissions took their responsibility seriously when they looked for sources of funds to relieve the local taxpayers of the burden of funding an expensive bridge replacement. The commission is elected to be good stewards of the tax dollars and the infrastructure. This project does both. You may contact the commission at firstname.lastname@example.org.