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Missoula County commissioners place stop on South Avenue Bridge project

Posted at 4:30 PM, Jan 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-17 19:49:48-05

MISSOULA – Missoula County commissioners are putting a stop to the controversial South Avenue Bridge project, at least until they can get answers to their questions about the multi-million dollar plan.

The board’s decision is at least a “hold” on the project, but has the potential to be a complete reboot to plans to replace the old Maclay Bridge.

It’s now been more than three-and-a-half years since Missoula County, the Montana Department of Transportation and other officials were meeting to map out replacement of the aging Maclay Bridge with the new “South Avenue Bridge.” At that point, the previous county commissioners had settled on the plan to remove the old one-way bridge, ending years of debate over whether the county should, or even could, revamp the span.

Under that timeline, public meetings and environmental review were getting underway and the final bridge plans would have been finished in 2017. But complications, and plenty of opposition along the way, slowed that objective.

Environmental reports were finally released last fall. But when the new Board of Commissioners learned the consulting engineers were ready for a new public meeting, they called for a “full stop” until their concerns can be addressed.

“And they were going to do a public meeting,” said Missoula Co. Commissioner Cola Rowley. “And he had a lot of questions about what really is this meeting? Is there going to be public comment? If so, who are those comments going to be addressed by, if anyone? Who’s really the agency that the public needs to be discussing their comments with at this point? We’re also clear what space belongs to the county, to MDT, to FHWA?”

Rowley was on the board when the county approved the last steps. But with Dave Strohmaier and new Commissioner Josh Slotnick, this panel wants to be completely briefed.

South Ave Bridge Hold
Missoula County commissioners say they’re looking for answers to key questions before proceeding with the Maclay Bridge project. (Dennis Bragg photo)

“I feel like we’re kind of at that same step now of do we continue to investigate? Or has the current investigation been enough? And really we want to gather information and data that and hear it from the people who know,” Rowley said.

In an exclusive interview, commissioners tell me this reset on the Maclay project doesn’t necessarily mean there’s going to be a new route for the bridge, or new plans. They say the first order of business is getting their questions answered.

“Do we build a new bridge at South Avenue? Do we attempt to rehabilitate the existing Maclay Bridge? So we’re at a key point to determine what our decision space is,” said Missoula Co. Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

“And we just really need to have all of the key players and the decision makers in the room together, so that we’re not making assumptions of what may, or may not be the case,” Strohmaier added.

“We can’t be relying on what was done in 2008 as a jumping-off point,” said Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “The history is really important. But we need to be considering this whole project in light of where we are right now.”

However, commissioners also want those answers quickly in large part to give Target Range residents some certainty for the first time in years.

“Absolutely. But really for all the people who live out in that area. They’ve been living with this as an open-ended question for way too long,” Slotnick said.

No date has been set for a joint meeting, but we’ll tell you when it is.

Moves to replace the old Maclay Bridge date back to at least 1994.