BIGFORK – Community members gathered on Dec. 1 at the Bigfork Elementary School cafeteria faced two uncomfortable realities for the Swan River Bridge’s future: The bridge will lose its historical designation, and construction funds might not be available until long after the deteriorating bridge is deemed structurally deficient.
At the informational meeting, Kathy Harris, with the construction firm KLJ, presented the results of a feasibility study and highlighted the two best options for replacing the 100-year-old bridge. After months spent identifying seven preliminary choices and reviewing community feedback, the steering committee has endorsed two options.
Both options involve one-lane bridges with a through truss, would ensure safe passage for vehicles and pedestrians, preserve the historic appearance to some degree, and be fundable by the Montana Department of Transportation and maintainable by the Flathead County, which owns the bridge.
Option Three would entail the construction of a new steel girder bridge on top of which the existing historic trusses would be placed in order to preserve some historic materials. This would cost between $1.5 million and $2.2 million, according to Harris.
Option Seven would involve a complete rebuild, and while it would feature visual elements of modern construction, it would maintain the architectural look. This option would likely cost between $1.6 million and $2.4 million.
With a county budget for bridge maintenance totaling $800,000, the only source for funds is the MDT, according to Kalispell Public Works Director Dave Prunty. However, those construction funds are currently committed through 2024, a troubling timeline, considering the state of the bridge.
At an August meeting, MDT officials said the bridge would most likely be deemed structurally deficient within five years. On Dec. 1, Harris backed away from that claim, saying that estimating the lifespan is difficult.
“We don’t know right now. Between MDT and the county, there is regular inspection to look at the bridge. It could deteriorate very quickly,” she said. “It could surprise us all and last for eight years. I wish I could give you a number.”
“I have huge concerns for this bridge to last for eight years,” Prunty added. “Eight more years scares me.”
Harris noted that some exceptions, including projects being removed from the MDT’s list, could free up funds before 2024.
“Past history has seen that a lot,” she said. “But no promises.”
Timelines aside, funding has plagued this project, in large part because the bridge’s historical significance has ruled out the most cost-effective option of replacement of a standard concrete girder with no overhead feature.
Complete rehabilitation has received “a lot of interest” according to Harris, because it would retain the bridge’s spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Seventy-five percent of the bridge would need to be replaced, a project larger in scale than any other MDT bridge project, according to officials.
Harris said that the steering committee “spent a fair amount of time” trying to budget this option, but ultimately, there was a “big risk” that the cost would make the project unrealistic and put the project in danger of not receiving funding at all.
Paul Mutascio, president of the Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork, spoke at the meeting, endorsing the option to replace the bridge entirely.
“I think it would be wonderful if we could keep (the historical designation),” he said. “But I think where we’re at is a win-win situation. Our concern was not necessarily the historical designation, but the cultural aspect and the look that it brings to Bigfork … Rehabilitation really wasn’t feasible.”
“We’re going to lose the designation no matter what,” he continued, noting that the option would “keep the iconic look” and give the community “a brand new bridge that’s going to last for 74 years.”
The steering committee’s next move is to submit a report to county officials by late January, Harris estimated. The county will then make a decision on the project. The following design and permitting stage could take approximately two years.
State officials continue to seek community input, and will accept comments until Jan. 3, 2017. Community members can submit comments online (indicate that comments are for project UPN 9020-SWAN-RIVER-BRIDGE-STUDY). They may also contact MDT District Administrator Ed Toavs at PO Box 7039, Missoula, Montana 5907-7039.