A group of roughly two dozen Target Range homeowners last week accused Missoula County of moving forward on plans to replace the historic Maclay Bridge south of Missoula without gathering sufficient public comment.
"I think they thought it was going to be a done deal," says Missoula attorney and Blue Mountain Road resident Helen Orendain.
The newly formed Maclay Bridge Alliance asserted in a Jan. 13 letter to Missoula County Commissioners that the governing body is not adequately weighing pros and cons of replacing the 76-year-old one-lane bridge. The commissioners must sign off on a memorandum of understanding with the Montana Department of Transportation to set the project into motion.
Of particular concern for the alliance is a plan originally proposed in 1994 that involves extending South Avenue by building a wider bridge that would be constructed over the Bitterroot River about a half mile from the Maclay Bridge. If a new bridge is built extending South Avenue, or if the Maclay Bridge is replaced, alliance members believe traffic would greatly increase, and the rural character of the area forever altered.
"We haven't found any justification at all from the county for why they want to build this thing," says alliance member Bob Schweitzer. "There's no complaint from the folks who live out there."
County officials point to data kept by the Federal Highway Administration that labels the Maclay Bridge, erected in 1935, as "structurally deficient" as a primary reason to build a new bridge.
However, Federal Highway Administration Spokeswoman Nancy Singer says many variables—like the fact that the Maclay Bridge has only one lane–will help shape whether or not a bridge is considered deficient.
"It doesn't necessarily mean that it is structurally unsafe," Singer says.
Missoula County Commission Chair Jean Curtiss says the public will be given ample opportunity to weigh in. But because it takes a significant amount of time to get multiple stakeholders and funding sources on board, the governing body is now working proactively to investigate its options.
"What we're doing now is looking at whether or not Maclay Bridge needs a replacement, and, if so, where," Curtiss says. "We have not made up our mind on anything."