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Commission backs option for one-lane Bigfork bridge

April 12, 2017 GMT

Flathead County Commissioners gave their verbal support for a plan to replace the Bigfork historic one-lane Swan River Bridge, which has decayed to the point that officials fear it’s near closure.

The village’s one-lane steel bridge is more than 100 years old. Due to corrosion, the span is capped at a three-ton load limit. That’s the lightest limit allowed before closure.

For roughly a year, KLJ Engineering has worked with officials from Flathead County and the Montana Department of Transportation and Bigfork residents to find a solution for the bridge crossing the Swan River. The Swan River Bridge steering committee narrowed their options to replace the bridge with a similar model that maintains a steel truss overhead with one lane for traffic and a walking path.

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Tuesday morning, the firm brought the favored plan known as “option seven” before the county commissioners.

County Commissioner Pam Holmquist acted as a member on the bridge steering committee.

“I think we need acknowledgment that we are for option seven and I would stand by that,” Holmquist said.

The commissioners placed the decision as an action item on the agenda for Thursday, April 13.

Kent Barnes, a bridge engineer with the state department of transportation, said it was a good time to get the project on the books in order to secure its funding.

He said the study equipped the project to move forward quickly - though finding state dollars to replace the bridge could take time.

“Right now, the bridge program is full for several years out, probably into the 2023, 2024 range,” Barnes said. “However we could start the design now.”

Kathy Harris from KLJ Engineering said the county would be responsible for bridge upkeep after any construction.

Harris said as the firm dove into the feasibility study roughly a year ago, the need to replace or restore the bridge was evident.

“The corrosion underneath and the wear-and-tear on 100-some-year-old structure has really worn it out,” she said. ”...That legal road rating needs to be closely looked at and it may be reduced and closed anytime in the near future, and we cannot predict that.”

She said advocating to keep the one-lane bridge counters typical modern bridge replacements. However, the community put their votes behind the one-lane option as part of an effort to maintain the current historic look, Harris said.

It could also save the county and state money.

“The potential for the two-lane replacement impacted the potential of the project to cost quite a bit more because of a couple areas of uncertainty,” she said.

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To fit two lanes, Harris said the road leading to the bridge would have to be altered, which encroaches on land the county doesn’t own on the north end of the bridge. On the south side, it would move the road closer to land where PacifiCorp has a Superfund cleanup site.

County Commissioner Phil Mitchell said he wanted to support the Bigfork community’s vote.

“I think the character of Bigfork is a one-lane bridge and I don’t foresee Bigfork building up enough in their core area to ever have a two-lane bridge ... I think we need to honor that.”

Paul Mutascio, president of Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork, said while the historic bridge is iconic, the community realized the bridge was in its final days.

“We had to make some hard choices as a community - and we did - so that’s why we’re coming forward supporting the recommendations,” he said.

Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or khoughton@dailyinterlake.com.