As MDT Prepares to Replace Sportsman’s Bridge, FWP Lays Plans for New Fishing Access Site

The new fishing access site would be located on the west bank of Flathead River just south of the existing bridge, which in 2009 was deemed unsuitable to accommodate increases in traffic and vehicle size

By Tristan Scott
Sunset on the Flathead River at Sportsman’s Bridge outside Bigfork on July 31, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Fifteen years ago, engineers with the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) recognized the need to replace Sportsman’s Bridge, the narrow, two-lane steel structure that spans the Flathead River between Bigfork and Kalispell.

With construction beginning in 1955, the steel bridge along Montana Highway 82 opened to the public in 1959. But its 12-foot-wide lanes and two-girder support system weren’t designed to accommodate the steady increase in tourism-generated traffic that’s converged on the Flathead Valley in recent years, nor did its architects predict the expansion of modern vehicle dimensions. In 2009, the MDT determined the bridge is “deficient based on deck width and traffic volume” and nominated it for rehabilitation, widening or replacement. A decade later, in March 2019, the agency described its plans in a letter to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP).

“Based on these conditions, the existing bridge is functionally obsolete, therefore rehabilitation and widening or replacement is necessary,” according to the letter, which goes on to describe a critical logistical challenge to the bridge replacement project, which would wipe out FWP’s existing fishing access site on the east bank of the Flathead River, just south of the existing bridge.

MDT worked with FWP to develop a new fishing access site (FAS) south of the existing location on the west side of the Flathead River; on Tuesday, FWP released a draft environmental assessment (EA) and opened a 30-day public comment period.

The plan to relocate the new FAS on the west side of the river will delay the replacement of Sportsman’s Bridge, which is slated to begin in 2025 but could be postponed “due to funding availability, contractor availability, economic conditions, and other unforeseen factors,” according to MDT Missoula District Administrator Bob Vosen, who explained that the new FAS must be built first to create space for the new bridge to be constructed. This also ensures that the public has continued access to the Flathead River while MDT replaces the current 686-foot-long bridge with a new 706-foot-long structure featuring two 12-foot travel lanes and two 10-foot shoulders.

“This is an exciting development for the Bigfork community, even though it delays the construction of the bridge,” Vosen said. “FWP and MDT listened to the public’s concerns, assessed possible options, and found an alternative site on the west side of Flathead River that offers increased access.”

Before construction begins, MDT will host an open house so the community can view final plans, learn more about the upcoming construction, and meet members of the project team and ask questions.

MDT and FWP collaborated to identify a property suitable for a new FAS in the same vicinity, according to the EA, which explains that both sides of the river were considered for the new access site. Early plans to develop the access on the west side of the river hit an impasse more than a decade ago because it required the acquisition of private property; in the process of developing an alternative plan, however, a willing landowner emerged on the west side of the river across from the existing site off Oldenburg Road.

“This option had been evaluated in 2011, but the landowner was not interested in selling the land at that time,” the EA states. “FWP and MDT recently determined that the owner of the parcel on the west side of the river across from the current FAS was now interested in selling.”

Proposed Sportsman’s Bridge Fishing Access Site. Courtesy image

“The new FAS location offers many benefits, including increased parking space and shoreline access compared to the current east side location,” the EA states. “Additionally, the intersection of MT 82 with Oldenburg Road is preferred by both departments for its ease of access and safety features, compared to the alternative at Hanging Rock Drive.”

Development of the new Sportsman’s Bridge FAS, as proposed, would cost approximately $275,000, with funding provided by FWP. Amenities at the existing Sportsman’s Bridge FAS include two single-ramp boat launches, parking spaces for 25 vehicles with trailers, 10 single vehicles and a vault latrine. Proposed amenities at the new Sportsman’s Bridge FAS include a double-wide boat ramp capable of accommodating two boats at a time, parking facilities suitable for 38 trucks and trailers as well as 11 standard vehicles, and an ADA accessible bathroom facility in addition to the current restroom, which will be relocated. The site will be accessed via Hanging Rock Drive where new turn lanes from Highway 82 will be constructed, according to the EA.

In acquiring and developing the existing Sportsman’s Bridge FAS, federal Dingell-Johnson funds were leveraged by FWP to cover 75% of the cost of the proposed project. Dingell-Johnson funds are derived from federal excise taxes and import duties collected on fishing gear and equipment and placed into a special account known as the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund. Originally, fishing rods, reels and creels were the only items taxed; however, Congress has amended the Dingell-Johnson Act a number of times since its enactment to add to the lists of taxable items and purposes for which funds could be expended. This happened most notably with passage of the Wallop-Breaux Act in 1984 which expanded taxable items to include motorboat fuel — now the main source of Dingell-Johnson revenues.

Other factors considered in the decision to move the access to the west side of the river included safety improvements as a result of clear sight distances for turning off the highway into the FAS, unresolved easement issues involving the Hanging Rock Homeowner’s Association that would complicate building a new entrance on the east side of Flathead River (HOA) off Hanging Rock Drive, and the lack of room for future expansion at the existing FAS, the EA states.

“The new location on the west side of the river addresses all of these factors and considerations,” the EA states. “The easement is necessary to complete MDT’s bridge replacement project to accommodate a new and safer access road into Sportsman’s Bridge FAS off Hanging Rock Drive.”

Low water levels on the Flathead River as seen at Sportsman’s Bridge outside Bigfork on July 31, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Since 2019, recreational use of the existing Sportsman’s Bridge Fishing Access Site has averaged approximately 15,614 vehicle entrances annually, the EA states. Visitation occurs year-round, but peaks in July and August with approximately 2,500 to 3,000 vehicle entrances during each of those months.

“Therefore, FWP determined replacement of the existing Sportsman’s Bridge FAS is preferred to accommodate increasing public demand for recreational opportunities and access to the upper Flathead River and Flathead Lake from the affected site,” the EA states.

FWP published a draft environmental assessment outlining the proposed development project. The deadline to comment on the proposal is May 22.

To read more about the project or comment online, visit https://fwp.mt.gov/news/public-notices. Comments may also be submitted by mail to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Sportsman’s Bridge FAS EA, 490 N. Meridian Rd., Kalispell, 59901.

The public can also reach out to MDT with questions and concerns by calling the project hotline at (406) 207-4484, operating Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., or by emailing [email protected]. For more information about the project, visit www.mdt.mt.gov/pubinvolve/flathead/.

[email protected]