Maclay Bridge Alliance (MBA) activity is increasing and we expect major decisions soon. The Missoula County Commissioners (BCC) are moving forward with the Categorical Exclusion (CE) on South Avenue Bridge, and we are taking determined steps to stop it.
Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has begun reviewing the South Avenue Bridge environmental submittal. This review is key to approval of the CE, and continuation of the design.
Several weeks ago, we wrote a letter to FHWA. The letter outlined reasons that a CE was not appropriate and we provided examples. They responded that they would consider our letter as they conducted their review.
Shortly thereafter, we wrote a letter to Governor Bullock and Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) Director, Mike Tooley. We asked them for a meeting to discuss new information regarding Maclay Bridge. The Governor’s office responded and the meeting was held in Helena yesterday.
In attendance were Adam Schafer (Sr. Policy Advisor to the Governor), Mike Tooley, Lynn Zantos and Dwain Kailey from MDT. MBA was represented by two of our Directors Fred Stewart and Bob Schweitzer, Member Sharon Sterbis, and Political Advisor, Jim Parker.
To open the meeting, Fred gave a short introduction in which he indicated four points we would emphasize.
- 1) Maclay Bridge can be rehabilitated to safely carry all traffic, including emergency vehicles without introducing negative safety impacts into the community;
- 2) Traffic demand projections now show stable traffic levels rather than significant increase over the next 25 years;
- 3) Availability of funding has become an issue and rehabilitation would cost at least $10 million less and have fewer environmental, social, safety, and community impacts; and
- 4) The CE is unlikely to be adequate for the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) and the Montana Environmental Protection Agency (MEPA) requirements, leading to an expensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
Fred closed the meeting by asking MDT to consider the Project Specific Agreement with Missoula County that calls for the county “to repay the money spent if they terminate the project”. He told them the possibility exists that the BCC would reconsider going forward with South Avenue Bridge if they did not have to repay fees expended to date. We estimate expenditures to date may exceed $700,000.
MDT said the money would have to be repaid if the county decided to terminate the project because FHWA would require the state to pay the money back if the county didn•t pay it back. However, it was mentioned that if the CE was determined to be inadequate, then it might be possible for the county to decide NOT to go forward with an Environmental Assessment (EA) or EIS. At that point the county may be able to stop the proposed South Avenue Bridge study without having to pay back the money already spent.
If the county then decides to select a Maclay Bridge rehabilitation option with a CE, then that could get the outcome MBA is looking for and allow the county to abandon constructing a new bridge without repayment of expenses to date.