MDT Hastens Bigfork Bridge Replacement Timeline

Construction on the Bridge Street Bridge could begin in early 2025, with utility work occurring later this year

By Micah Drew
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

Construction on the Bridge Street Bridge in Bigfork, which officials with Flathead County and the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) closed to vehicles and pedestrians on Jan. 31, could start sooner than expected.

That’s according to the latest update provided by MDT, which indicated an accelerated timeline to replace the 117-year-old bridge. Construction to replace the bridge could begin in early 2025 with some utility work on the site occurring later this year — much sooner than the initial 2026 start date MDT previously laid out for the site. However, the timeline could be altered due to the availability of funding, materials and labor availability, as well as unforeseen complications surrounding utility relocations, right-of-way coordination and environmental regulatory clearances.

A member of the public relations team working on behalf of MDT said the agency and Flathead County officials understand the importance of the bridge as an artery through Bigfork and have been exploring every possible avenue to speed up the process. Calling it an “all-hands-on-deck situation, where all the resources have been thrown at finding a solution,” the latest progress came through the cooperation of several agencies and utility companies, along with “the hard work and ingenuity of a large team of MDT and County employees,” according to the update.

The Bridge Street Bridge is a one-lane steel-truss bridge that connects downtown Bigfork to an area off of Montana Highway 35 that accesses Sliter’s Park, the Timbers Motel and Bigfork Harbor Condominiums. Without the connection, travelers seeking to cross the river have to take a roundabout route back to the highway, which doesn’t have pedestrian structures in place.

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; still, the emergency closure in January was unexpected.

“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 during a meeting with local residents in February.

The closure followed an inspection report detailing widespread, severe corrosion across the bridge, including holes in stringer webs and deterioration on truss eyebars.

“The steel stringers of this bridge exhibit widespread severe corrosion with up to 100% loss of section, particularly in bearing zones,” the inspection stated. “Given the cumulative effect of the severe section loss and compromised fracture [to] 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.”

In March, county officials considered several temporary solutions including multiple temporary bridge structures and the reinforcement of the existing bridge; however, on-site utilities and the narrow bridge site complicated any possible fixes.

“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, told the Beacon.

Bridge projects are generally complex and take many years to complete due to the significant hurdles that must be overcome, including design, funding, environmental, and permitting challenges, according to MDT. These hurdles remain with the accelerated timeline, and MDT and Flathead County officials will continue to update the public with the latest information on the project.

For more information about the Bridge Street-Bigfork project, visit  www.mdt.mt.gov/pubinvolve/bigforkbridge/.

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