Columbia Falls Bridge Gets Major Financial Boost

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – As it stands now, the old Red Bridge in Columbia Falls is an inaccessible island of steel, disintegrating wood and concrete in the middle of the Flathead River. And in the early morning fog of a mid-August day, the bridge seems even more like a ghost of its previous self than it does in the summer sunshine.

Dave Renfrow is familiar with the structure’s many moods – he has been, in one capacity or another, trying to restore the bridge since 2000. And now, 10 years later, it looks like the bridge may have its best chance yet of taking back its place as a vital link in the community.

Earlier this month, the Flathead County Commission agreed to allocate $250,000 of its Community Transportation Enhancement Program (CTEP) funds toward the Red Bridge restoration project, spearheaded by a committee within the First Best Place Task Force.

The commission also agreed to give $250,000 of next year’s CTEP funds to the project if the county’s anticipated share comes through in 2011.

The city of Columbia Falls has also gotten onboard, agreeing to donate $50,000 for improvements to its side of the bridge, including a new parking lot and a tie-in to the trail system already in place.

“Now that the county is in and the city is in, that’s going to open up a lot of funding opportunities,” Renfrow said, standing on the crumbling asphalt where wooden approaches to the bridge once stood.

James Talbott originally built a wooden bridge here in the late 1800s, eventually selling it to the county for $5,000. A new, steel bridge was constructed and finished in 1912, only to be nearly swept away by the flood of 1913.

The Red Bridge was reinforced and survived the flood in 1964, but was deemed unsafe for car traffic in 1989 and closed off to pedestrians in 1992. The closure meant traffic would be diverted to U.S. Highway 2, but the city felt the loss on a deeper level as well.

“It was a major connecting point for the community for years and years,” First Best Place volunteer Zac Perry said. “It’s like losing some connective tissue.”

The goal now is to revamp the bridge into a pedestrian river crossing, complete with a possible kayak playground and community park.

The project has a $940,000 price tag, but with the potential for $500,000 in the next two years, the optimism is palpable.

“That was the big step for us,” Perry said. “That’s the primary building block.”

Perry spent a month collecting signatures for a petition supporting Red Bridge restoration after the Task Force’s initial attempt at winning CTEP funds was hampered by the county’s perceived lack of community support.

Given a second chance after the commissioners decided the group had not had enough information to properly fill out their applications in the first round, the Task Force set out to illustrate the project’s support within the community.

One thousand signatures later, Perry could report only good news from his efforts.

“There were no negatives,” Perry said. “I didn’t speak to a single person that declined to support the project. The community is just 100 percent behind this.”

Commissioner Jim Dupont said he didn’t think it was fair that the Red Bridge was initially overlooked and he supports the project because the bridge would be a safer route for kids walking or biking to school.

This safety feature also caught the attention of the federal Safe Route to Schools program, said First Best Place Executive Director Barry Conger. He anticipates that the Red Bridge will qualify for grants from the program because it shortens the distance to schools by two and a half miles and redirects kids from the more-dangerous highway.

The project already has $50,000 in private and in-kind donations, Conger said, and they are expecting another $50,000 in services and materials. The remaining balance is expected to come from grants and donations, he said.

The group has even set a tentative construction date for 2011.

The commissioners also voted to allocate CTEP monies to two other projects; $300,000 went to the trail along the Swan River Road and $300,000 went to a project submitted for a trail along Blacktail Road in Lakeside.

It has been over a decade since Columbia Falls has received CTEP funds, Renfrow said, a point that has not gone unnoticed in government.

“There’s really been no CTEP money available for Columbia Falls,” Dupont said. “I certainly felt they deserve a shot.”

Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart agreed.

“Columbia Falls has been lagging way behind in receiving a share of the county CTEP funding,” Barnhart said.

Barnhart reinforced the city’s dedication to the project, which also includes the possibility of transferring the bridge’s possession from the county to Columbia Falls once it is finished.

Despite hurdles still left to clear, the promise of CTEP money strengthened the hope that the old Red Bridge will connect Columbia Falls once again.

“Pedestrian bridges just dramatically affect (cities),” Renfrow said. “People think so much better of their community and they make the community more attractive for businesses.”