The fate of a historic bridge connecting downtown Bigfork and Montana Highway 35 remains in limbo after officials on Jan. 31 closed the bridge due to structural concerns.
Representatives from the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) and Flathead County, as well as Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, met with Bigfork residents and business owners on Feb. 2 to field questions and discuss interim solutions ahead of a full replacement of the bridge, which has been in the works since 2017.
“We did not take this lightly. This is not an easy decision for us, any time we have to do this,” Dustin Rouse, chief engineer with MDT, said of the decision to close the bridge last week.
Rouse explained that the bridge, which was built in 1912, had deteriorated to the point that it was no longer safe for vehicles or pedestrians to cross.
The Bridge Street Bridge is a one-lane steel-truss bridge that connects downtown Bigfork with Montana Highway 35. MDT in 2017 identified the bridge as a structure in need of repair or replacement, signaling to Bigfork residents that it would soon be unable to carry vehicular and pedestrian traffic.
The Flathead County commissioners in April 2017 approved a plan to rebuild the bridge while maintaining its historic design and one-lane structure. The new bridge is set to have a greater carrying capacity and will include a sidewalk that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Currently, the Bridge Street Bridge can only carry three tons of weight.
Construction on the new bridge is slated to begin in 2026, according to MDT, however funding, materials and labor availability may alter the timeline.
After the unexpected closure last week, community members implored MDT and county officials to reach a temporary solution or speed up the replacement process ahead of a slate of highly attended events in the town.
“Bigfork is a congested, small town on its best day,” Rebekah King, executive director of the Bigfork Area Chamber of Commerce, said.
According to King, the bridge is a key artery for the community, which relies heavily on tourism to sustain its downtown sector during Montana’s busy summer months. If the bridge is closed through the summer, visitors may skip visiting Bigfork due to concerns over congestion or traffic, she said.
Residents expressed concerns that locals who use the bridge to walk to school or work will need to walk along Montana Highway 35, a dangerous roadway to cross by foot.
The bridge also serves as a vital exit should an emergency event occur downtown, King said.
“If there’s any sort of emergency, there’s only one way out of town,” the chamber of commerce director said. “That’s a big safety concern that hasn’t been addressed yet.”
Other issues raised by locals involved congestion and safety during events like the Bigfork Whitewater Festival and the annual Fourth of July Parade, as well as the ability for children to get to the new Bigfork branch of the ImagineIf Libraries, which is located on the southern, now inaccessible side of the bridge.
“This bridge in this town is extraordinarily important for a lot of reasons,” Zinke said. “We’ve got to make sure the bridge works, otherwise it’s going to be a long and miserable summer.”
Representatives from MDT and Flathead County said they are working to find a temporary fix ahead of the bridge’s replacement, but that they cannot promise any particular solutions or timeframes. Possible fixes could include renting a bridge or constructing a suspension bridge crossway for pedestrians.
“We’re going to do everything we can as fast as we can,” MDT Chief Operating Officer Dwane Kailey said.
Kailey said MDT will continue to communicate with the community as developments occur.
The public is encouraged to submit thoughts and questions regarding the bridge replacement project to [email protected] or by calling the project hotline at 406-207-4484.
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