Thursday, February 22, 2024
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Officials meet with locals in search of solutions for closed bridge

by JEREMY WEBER
For the Eagle | February 5, 2024 12:00 PM

Bigfork is no closer to a solution for the closing of the downtown Bridge Street bridge despite a meeting between Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, Montana Department of Transportation (MDT), Flathead County representatives and Bigfork residents and business owners Friday.

The MDT announced the immediate closure of the Bridge Street Bridge to both vehicle and pedestrian traffic due to structural concerns Wednesday after its most recent inspection found  that the bridge can no longer reliably carry traffic.

   Flathead County Public Works Director Dave Prunty, (left) along with county engineer Bethany Kappes (middle) and Montana Department of Transportation chief engineer Dustin Rouse meet with Bigfork citizens concerned about the closing of the Bridge Street bridge Friday, Fab. 2, 2024. (Jeremy Weber/Bigfork Eagle)
 
 

“We did not take this matter lightly. This was not an easy decision for us any time we have to do this. This bridge was built in 1912 and is continuing to deteriorate. For public safety, we had to shut it down. We need to keep traffic and pedestrians off of it,” Dustin Rouse, chief engineer with MDT, said. “Our concern is not one person walking across the bridge. Our concern is if you get 30 or 100 people on there. That is a risk. It is not rated to hold that kind of load.”

Built in 1912 and designed with a 75-year expected lifetime, the bridge has already long outlived the builder’s estimations, but the clock appears to have finally run out on the historic structure.

In April 2017, Flathead County commissioners approved a plan to rebuild the bridge while maintaining its historic design and one-lane structure while also increasing its carrying capacity. The new design will also include a sidewalk that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but construction is not expected to begin until 2026, at the earliest.

“There’s not a whole lot we can do because of the deterioration. We are going to evaluate and see if there are any quick fixes, but I wouldn’t build any hope or expectations because it is an old bridge. Unfortunately, when they get to this point, there is not a whole lot we can do,” MDT Chief Operating Officer Dwane Kailey said. “We are going to do everything we can to expedite the building of the new bridge and get it into place as soon as we can, but that is going to take some time.”

For Zinke and his Bigfork constituents, a solution to the problem cannot come fast enough.

“Summer is going to be rough without this. It’s going to be a disaster. You can’t even run a parade without this bridge. This bridge is extraordinarily important to this town for a lot of reasons,” Zinke said. “We need to find a way to fix the bridge so that it works. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long and miserable summer for us all.”

Bigfork Chamber of Commerce executive director Rebekah King echoed the congressman’s concerns, lamenting the effect of the bridge’s closing on Bigfork’s downtown businesses.

“This is going to have a huge economic impact on Bigfork - on its businesses,” she said. “Bigfork is a congested small town on its best day and the events cannot function without this bridge. There is a very good chance that tourists will choose just not to deal with the mess down here and just keep going.”

“We only have two arteries into this town. If you shut off one of them, most things don’t survive. That’s how ghost towns are created,” Danny Horgan, the owner of downtown restaurant Oro y Plata, added. “You might as well be telling all of these people, all of these businesses - ‘You just have to deal with it.’ To start this project in 2026 is just not acceptable.”

   State and county officials continue to search for solutions to the problems presented by the closing of the Bridge Street bridge in Bigfork. (Jeremy Weber/Bigfork Eagle)

Locals also raised a number of safety concerns, including congestion and safety during events like the Bigfork Whitewater Festival and the annual Fourth of July Parade along with pedestrians who will now be forced to walk along Montana Highway 35 to reach places after the bridge closure.

King also expressed concern for the residents who would be trapped by the bridge’s closure in the event of a fire approaching the area from the southwest.

While Kailey insisted that MDT will do everything it can to expedite the construction of the new bridge, he pointed out that it will be up to the county to come up with any temporary solutions in the meantime.

Flathead County engineer Bethany Kappes told the crowd there are some temporary solution options, but they are not cheap and the “geometry” of the area could make them difficult to implement.

According to Kappes, a temporary pedestrian bridge could possibly be erected on the power plant side of the bridge, but at a cost of between $400,000 and $600,000.

For Flathead County Public Works Director Dave Prunty, who helped spearhead the effort to secure a new bridge, the situation is a culmination of his worst fears.

“In 2016, I submitted an application for a two-lane, concrete and beam and deck bridge. The bottom line is that bridge would probably be in place by now because that is a pretty easy bridge for MDT to do their work on,” he said. “Unfortunately, we got to a point where I hoped like hell that we wouldn’t get to.”

While the county and the people of Bigfork continue to search for answers, Kailey said plans for the construction of the new bridge will continue.

“That was our plan - to deliver the new bridge in 2026. We do have the funding available for the project, but not until then,” he said. “We are three days into this. Give us a little time and we will see what we can expedite. We hear you and we understand. Let us see what we can do.”

Those with questions or concerns can email Sloane Stinson at Sloane@bigskypublicrelations.com or call the project hotline at 406-207-4484, which operates Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

For more information about the Bridge Street - Bigfork project, visit http://bit.ly/BridgeStreetBigfork.