Historic Bigfork Crossing to Remain Shuttered as Summer Approaches

Following the emergency closure of Bigfork’s Bridge Street Bridge, an analysis last month determined that safety and utility complications make constructing a temporary pedestrian crossing unfeasible

By Denali Sagner
The Bridge Street Bridge in Bigfork on Feb. 2, 2024. The bridge was closed to pedestrian and vehicle traffic starting Jan. 31 after an inspection determined it can no longer reliably carry traffic. Denali Sagner | Flathead Beacon

Structural and safety obstacles have complicated efforts to reconnect downtown Bigfork and Montana Highway 35 following the emergency shuttering of a historic bridge earlier this year.

The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) and Flathead County on Jan. 31 closed Bigfork’s Bridge Street Bridge to vehicles and pedestrians after an inspection found the bridge could no longer reliably carry traffic. Inspectors found widespread, severe corrosion across the 117-year-old one-lane steel truss bridge, including holes in stringer webs and deterioration on truss eyebars.

“Given the cumulative effect of the severe section loss and compromised fracture critical elements, it is advisable to restrict all vehicular traffic from this bridge unless designed repairs are made to the deteriorated elements to restore their capacity,” the inspection stated.

The bridge crosses the Swan River, connecting downtown Bigfork to the area off of Montana Highway 35 that is home to Sliter’s Park, the Timbers Motel and Bigfork Harbor Condominiums.

While community members have called for a temporary crossing to be erected ahead of a complete replacement, an analysis conducted by Flathead County last month determined that site constraints, safety risks and high costs make it infeasible to construct an interim solution. With a replacement slated for 2026 and no temporary solution on the horizon, local residents and businesses owners have raised concerns about pedestrian safety, emergency responder access and business impacts.

In the March temporary solutions analysis, county officials considered seven different interim solutions, including six temporary bridge structures and the reinforcement of the existing bridge. Per the analysis, on-site utilities make the construction of a temporary bridge difficult, if not impossible. Present utilities include overhead power and communication lines immediately adjacent to the bridge and a gas line that is suspended from the existing truss. Until the utilities are moved, the existing bridge cannot be removed and cranes and other large equipment cannot be used in the area. The small nature of the bridge site has also left little space for a temporary fix.

“It is a cramped, tight area, and that is the complication, both for a preliminary pedestrian fix and, quite honestly, for the construction of this new bridge,” Flathead County Public Works Director Dave Prunty told the Beacon.

“After looking at a lot of options and talking to a lot of experts, the feasibility just isn’t there unfortunately,” Bethany Kappes, Flathead County bridge engineer, added.

Though the January closure of the Bridge Street Bridge rocked the community, a replacement has been on the calendar since 2017, when Flathead County and MDT set out to build a new structure that would withstand daily traffic while maintaining the historic character of the Bigfork community. The bridge is set to be replaced through the state’s off-system bridge replacement program, which leverages state funding to analyze and improve Montana’s more than 2,000 off-system bridges.

While construction was initially slated to begin in 2024, project delays and inflation have pushed the start date back to 2026.

“These are not inexpensive bridges to build in today’s world,” Prunty said, discussing the plans to build a new steel truss bridge in place of the current structure.

For Bigfork residents, the bridge closure has spurred concerns over safety and tourism access during the lakeside community’s busy season.

“We’re such a small and precious downtown. To have, arguably, our best feature removed, it’s disappointing,” Marcus Shahen, owner of Bigfork’s Pocketstone Café, said.

Shahen said that while business has stayed steady this winter, he’s worried that tourists will be deterred from coming to Bigfork this summer.

With the bridge closure, the downtown area can only be accessed via Grand Drive, creating a bottleneck should there be a high volume of cars or an emergency evacuation.

“What we’re most concerned about, especially being where we’re at, is people’s safety,” Aaron Whitten, CEO of the Timbers Motel, said.

The Timbers is situated south of the bridge on Highway 35. While patrons could previously walk over the bridge into downtown, the sole pedestrian option following the closure is to walk along the highway, a hazardous landscape to traverse on foot.

“We can make some assumptions about what the intersection of pedestrian and vehicular traffic is going to be like, especially during summertime,” Whitten said.

Bigfork hosts a number of high-traffic events during the summer, including the Bigfork Whitewater Festival in May, an annual Fourth of July parade, the Festival of the Arts in August and the Rumble in the Bay car show in September.

Bigfork Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rebekah King said that Bigfork’s annual events will continue this summer, but that modifications may need to be made to account for safety.

In addition to pedestrian safety, locals raised concerns with the ability of emergency responders to access downtown should a fire or medical emergency occur.

“It’s really difficult and slow going to get through town on a normal, summer day. Without an exit, every car that comes down that main drag is going to have to turn around,” Jason Lanier, owner of Bigfork Anglers, a shop located by the bridge, said.  

King said that while she understands residents’ frustrations, the state and county have been “eager to help” move the project along.

“MDT and the county totally understand how impactful this bridge closure has been and how important this bridge replacement is,” Kappes, the county bridge engineer, said. “We absolutely get it. This project is on our minds every day. We talk about it every day. We are in the business of keeping roads open. That is our goal”

Prunty said that though the closure is difficult in the interim, Bigfork is slated to have a modern, high-quality bridge within the next few years.

“I think everybody is diligently working to try to deliver this thing as fast as possible,” he said.

Questions can be directed to Big Sky Public Relations’ Sloane Stinson at [email protected]. Members of the public can also call the project hotline at (406) 207-4484, operating Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information can be found here.

The full alternative analysis report can be read below.

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