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Nicole "Cola" Rowley

Though bridges typically connect communities, a divide currently exists when it comes to the proposed South Avenue Bridge.

Earlier this year, we asked for clarification on the process, which resulted in a month-long pause while we performed due diligence and brought new key staff up to speed on the project. Since then, a lot of confusion has surfaced about Missoula County’s role in the process. From calls to “make the decision already” and “take a vote,” we’ve received numerous frustrated comments from constituents.

This frustration is understandable. However, the one-month delay was necessary to clarify the process, and our role in it, with the Montana Department of Transportation and the Federal Highways Administration. We were able to meet with decision-makers at MDT and FHWA, as well as with engineers at HDR, the consulting firm hired by the county. Now that we have a better understanding of the process and our role in it, we’d like to share this clarity. Here is an outline of the upcoming phases of the project, as described by MDT:

• HDR’s analysis of the proposed South Avenue Bridge concluded the impacts do not warrant an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement. HDR’s professional opinion is that a categorical exclusion is adequate environmental documentation. Now MDT and FWHA are reviewing that conclusion. Those agencies have not returned comments or a decision yet.

• Upon completion of their review, MDT and FHWA will provide their comments or decision to Missoula County and HDR. Missoula County and HDR will address any comments received and submit a final document for MDT and FHWA review and approval.

• If MDT and FHWA approve the categorical exclusion, HDR will start finalizing the South Avenue Bridge design. When the design is approximately 60 to 70 percent complete, MDT and Missoula County will discuss the utility relocation and right-of-way acquisition phases. The county can become certified to perform these phases, or MDT can complete them.

• When the design is approximately 90 percent complete, Missoula County and MDT will discuss the construction phase. Again, the county can become certified to perform this phase, or MDT can complete it.

• The design phase will include opportunities for public comment and is expected to be complete by August 2020.

• The project will go out for bid, followed by construction. Either Missoula County or MDT can administer this phase. The current timeline projects construction will start in 2023.

As it stands, there is no opportunity for the county commission to vote on whether to continue the process toward building the South Avenue Bridge. Unless MDT or FHWA determines a heightened level of environmental documentation is warranted, the process will simply move forward as detailed above. The results that emerge while following that process will ultimately determine the project’s outcome.

We will continue to honor our responsibility as elected officials to remain engaged with the process and review and address specific actions throughout. As part of our due diligence, we will provide comment and express any concerns that arise and take action to mitigate them. This will ensure we have sufficiently evaluated the full impacts of the project.

Reasonable people can disagree, and we know many reasonable people on both sides of this debate who are equally passionate about their position. We remain committed, though, to doing what’s best for the community as a whole and using taxpayer dollars efficiently. This is our obligation to you, our constituents, and we take it very seriously.

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This opinion is signed by Missoula County Commissioners Nicole “Cola” Rowley, Dave Strohmaier and Josh Slotnick.

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