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Missoula County waiting for document review on South Avenue Bridge

Posted at 5:00 PM, Mar 26, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-26 20:25:51-04

MISSOULA – Missoula County commissioners say they’re in a “holding pattern” now on the controversial South Avenue Bridge, waiting to for state and federal agencies to complete their review of the project.

But after an exhaustive review of what’s happened in recent years, commissioners aren’t advocating paying back nearly a million dollars spent on the project.

Commissioners placed a “hold” on the replacement of the old Maclay Bridge in January, with concerns about the project and what role the county had in making decisions on how it would proceed.

Meetings in Helena, and here in Missoula, delved into details with state and federal officials, and HDR Engineering, which was consulting on the project. The basic upshot? The bridge project has progressed beyond the point of doing a much more detailed, and expensive, environmental review.

“I think we have a good understanding now, more so than we did before, about the difference between categorical exclusion and what it would mean to elevate it to an environmental assessment, what that would look like,” said Missoula County Commissioner Nicole “Cola” Rowley. “And why that has not been the decision that has been made by the people who make the decisions. We’ve gotten more clarity on the decision making authority, which really is for the most part with the state, at the Department of Transportation, and Federal Highways Administration.”

Commissioner Nicole “Cola” Rowley. (Dennis Bragg)

One thing that became clear in the meetings was the county being liable to pay back money spent on study and design so far. However, commissioners say that hasn’t been their intent.

“Neither the BCC nor myself have advocated that Missoula County take actions that would trigger the need to pay back planning funds spent to date or that results in a project that would necessitate destruction of people’s homes at a greater cost than the proposed South Avenue Bridge,” said commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. (Dennis Bragg)

Instead, Strohmaier says he’s still interested in more environmental work, an option for rehabilitating the Maclay Bridge with federal funding as an alternative and no payback of funds spent to date.

“It’s a huge chunk of money to payback the work that has already been done,” Rowley said. “And then also realizing well, then what do we do? Because then if we do do something else, I mean currently we have federal dollars to pay for a new bridge. We’re not going to have that. And so not only would it be paying back the money that we have spent so far, which is just shy of a million dollars, I think it’s around $800,000. We would have to pay that back. But then also, Maclay Bridge is still a problem. And what do we do about that?”

For now, the county will have to wait for the plans to be reviewed.

“In hindsight the county should have worked more closely with our consultant and maybe voted, officially, to submit those. Because really it seems like an internal battle of the county not necessarily agreeing with the scope that it set in the first place. But those documents have been submitted to the deciding agencies, MDT and FHWA, and we will await those comments and see what they have to move forward.”

Rowley expects the county will reach a point where it will have to decide whether to accept the plans, or come up with a different approach.