How a New Two-Lane Bridge Will Change the Rural Character of Target Range

The citizen-based Target Range Neighborhood Plan (TRNP), Rural by Design, was created by concerned residents with help from the Office of Planning and Grants. The plan was adopted by the Missoula County Commission in 2010. Prior to writing the plan, Target Range residents were surveyed about issues of importance; nearly 90% of survey respondents reported that maintaining the rural character of the area was especially important to them.

The TRNP says this about Maclay Bridge:

“The Missoula County Transportation Plan proposes a bridge crossing the Bitterroot River at the west end of South Avenue West. Currently the proposed bridge faces significant financial hurdles. In addition, when the environmental assessment (EA) was conducted for the South Avenue West Bridge in 1993, there was significant and nearly unanimous opposition from the Target Range community to constructing a new bridge rather than maintaining the Maclay Bridge. This neighborhood plan has not identified a need for a new bridge.”

The TRNP is comprised of two sections: Natural Environment and the Human Environment, which describe in depth strategies and recommendations for managing growth, enhancing wildlife habitat, protecting agricultural lands, commercial development, and mitigating growth in motorized traffic. As with other Missoula County neighborhood plans, the TRNP is not regulatory, but offers guidance for county commissioners when they are considering policy decisions, structural or zoning changes. Importantly, a 2007 Montana Supreme Court decision voided a proposed development in the Rattlesnake Neighborhood because the neighborhood plan in place at the time was disregarded. A lot has happened since 2010, including the decision in 2015 by the then Missoula County Commission to approve preparation of an environmental document to consider building a new bridge on the westerly extension of South Avenue. The TRNP hasn’t changed, however, and residents remain resolute in their support of rehabilitating Maclay Bridge and oppose building a new bridge. Importantly, two separate proposals, commissioned by MBA in 2018, unequivocally support rehabbing Maclay Bridge, finding that rehabilitation is completely feasible and by far the most economical choice.  South Avenue currently provides access to many high-volume destinations along its length.  Beginning at Target Range School and moving eastward it passes by the newly created Fort Missoula Regional Park.  Across from that lies Big Sky High School, then it progresses east past Community Hospital.  At Reserve Street it goes by Rosauers to the north and a shopping mall to the south. A few blocks further east, it passes by South Gate Mall followed by Trempers Shopping Center at Brooks Street.  Crossing Brooks there is another retail center to the north and the Missoula Fair Grounds on the south. Next is Sentinel High School. At the far east end of South Avenue sits the University of Montana.  Collectively, these destinations account for thousands of vehicles per day. If the west end of South Avenue is opened to easier access with a wider bridge it will likely generate an increase of thousands of vehicles per day in the heart of the Target Range Neighborhood.

A series of meetings with residents involved with the writing of the Neighborhood Plan and Missoula County planners in 2019 identified the following concerns associated with constructing a new two-lane bridge on South Avenue. A new bridge will result in:

Countermeasures for these issues include speed bumps, curb extensions (i.e., bump outs), signage alerting drivers to children at play and wildlife crossing, construction of a multi-use path for pedestrians and bicyclists, the installation of a roundabout to slow traffic and decrease vehicle noise and pollution, and increased traffic patrols to ensure drivers follow the posted 35 MPH speed limit.  None of these countermeasures by itself or in combination will completely eliminate crashes.  They will only help to reduce the crash frequency and injury severity.  These foreseeable crashes on South Avenue can be prevented by rehabilitating the Maclay Bridge.

One thing is certain: if Maclay Bridge is torn down and replaced with a new two-lane bridge on South Avenue, significant changes to the neighborhood will occur. The rural character so cherished by Target Range residents will be permanently altered as neighbors on South Avenue grapple with increased traffic, noise and danger to their children and pets alike. Residents living near Maclay Bridge, and anglers, floaters and boaters from all over the Missoula Valley, will mourn the loss of an iconic historical landmark that served faithfully as the only crossing over the Bitterroot River in this area for over a century.

MBA urges FHWA, MDT and the Missoula County Commission to look to the TRNP and study the MBA-backed proposals on rehabbing Maclay Bridge before moving forward by approving any environmental document for a new bridge on South Avenue.