Located at the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clearwater rivers, the Sunset Hill Road bridge rated 19 on a 100-point scale that considers criteria including safety, structural integrity, and service to the public. Credit: Skylar Rispens / MTFP

Missoula County is seeking roughly $16 million in federal grants to repair and replace a handful of bridges in the county.

While some improvements are already underway, the county is planning more bridge replacement projects in the coming years. Right now, two federal grant applications are underway, one to improve the Lolo Street bridge in the Rattlesnake and another that packages replacement costs for Boy Scout Bridge and for bridges on Sunset Hill Road and Glacier Creek Road. 

“They typically don’t get better over time.”

Austin Wright, structural project manager with Missoula engineering firm DJ&A

“We’re looking at the big picture ahead,” said Shane Stack, director of Missoula County Public Works. “There’s a lot of discretionary funding available at this point so we’ve got to be really strategic about trying to take advantage of that funding as best we can and put Missoula County in the best shape it can be moving forward with the bridges that it has got to maintain.” 

Of the more than 5,200 bridges in Montana, 358 are classified as structurally deficient, meaning one of its key elements is in poor or worse condition, which is down from the 380 bridges identified in 2019, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. According to the same report, the state has identified needed repairs to more than 900 bridges. 

Missoula County hosted an open house at the Sunset Hill Road bridge in late July to discuss its plans with residents and recreationists and to gather feedback. 

Located at the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clearwater rivers, the single-lane steel bridge was built in 1907 by a bridge manufacturer in Missoula and has since seen its fair share of improvements and rehabilitations, including a replaced bridge deck and additional guardrails and cables to boost the bridge’s capacity. 

Despite efforts to maintain the bridge, the county is opting to replace the Sunset Hill Road bridge that rated 19 on a 100-point scale that considers criteria including safety, structural integrity and service to the public, according to an assessment two years ago. 

“They typically don’t get better over time,” said Austin Wright, who is a structural project manager with DJ&A, a Missoula engineering firm that designed the replacement plans for the Sunset Hill Road bridge.  

The county intends to replace the bridge with a similar steel structure with a slightly wider bridge to accommodate larger vehicles like snow plows, firetrucks and other emergency vehicles, according to the preliminary designs. However, it will remain a single-lane bridge. The project is estimated to cost $4.1 million. 

The county does not have plans to reuse or repurpose the current bridge.

“We’re planning to reuse the existing piers so that we have very little environmental impact and keep work out of the stream to maintain the bull trout habitat and other fish species, which is always ideal,” Wright said. 

Overall, the response to the bridge’s open house in July was positive. Some residents said that they had no desire for the bridge to expand and accommodate two lanes of traffic and were relieved that the wider deck would accommodate emergency vehicles, snow plows and large maintenance vehicles. 

In its current state, county plows and large emergency vehicles have to drive about 15 miles on Highway 200 to access one side of the Blackfoot River or the other.

The single-lane steel Sunset Hill Road bridge was built in 1907 by a manufacturer in Missoula and has since seen its fair share of improvements and rehabilitations. Credit: Skylar Rispens / MTFP

In early August, the county reduced the weight limit of the Boy Scout Bridge in Seeley Lake from 14 tons down to three tons after a routine inspection by the Montana Department of Transportation found that the timber foundation had deteriorated. An underwater inspection is scheduled for September to better examine the foundation, though travelers should expect the new reduced weight limit to remain in place through the winter. 

The county estimates that the replacement of the bridge on Boy Scout Road will cost about $5.5 million and hopes to secure funding for the project through the federal Bridge Investment Program, which was created through the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Outside funding sources will be considered if the grant is not awarded to the county. 

“We receive about $1 million annually for our bridge program and there’s some 63 bridges (in Missoula County),” Stack said. “There’s just not enough funding to maintain and replace all these structures. I think we’re just trying to be strategic about how we approach this and try to leverage the limited funding that we do have to try and parlay that into larger funding sources.” 

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is expected to provide about $3.1 billion to Montana over the next five years for highways and bridges. So far, Montana has received about $1.2 billion for projects through the legislation. Additionally, the state can also compete for the $15.7 billion Bridge Investment Program for economically significant bridges and $15 billion of national funding dedicated to “megaprojects that will deliver substantial economic benefits to communities.”

In-depth, independent reporting on the stories impacting your community from reporters who know your town.

latest stories

Skylar Rispens is a freelance journalist based in Missoula. Skylar grew up in Helena and graduated from the University of Montana’s School of Journalism and has worked as a reporter for the Seeley Swan Pathfinder, the Great Falls Tribune and the Missoulian. Find her on social media @skylar_rispens