November 15, 2017

Share on facebook
Share on twitter

Status of Maclay Bridge: Last January, Missoula County and HDR Engineers (HDR) submitted environmental documents with a request for concurrence for a Categorical Exclusion (from National Environmental Policy Act) for design and construction of the South Avenue Bridge. The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) subsequently reviewed those documents. Seventy-eight comments were compiled by these agencies and returned to Missoula County this summer. Afterward, MDT requested that Missoula County set up a meeting of these agencies to clarify the comments. That meeting was held at Missoula County Courthouse on October 27 with representatives from FHWA, MDT, Missoula County, and HDR. County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier participated in this administrative working session. MBA members were present in the audience and we videotaped the meeting. The public was not permitted to comment. Official minutes of this meeting will be posted on the HDR website, www.southavenuebridge.com.

During the working session, FHWA asked for additional study of the yellow-billed cuckoo due to a shortage of site-specific information on this endangered species. This bird is known to visit the immediate area of the proposed bridge during seasonal migrations, so the study cannot be completed until next spring.

About half of the meeting was directed to the format of the environmental submittal. It was finally decided to maintain the narrative format as submitted by Missoula County and their consultant, rather than conform to an MDT form for categorical exclusions. Commissioner Dave Strohmaier asked if a categorical exclusion for this project was sufficient or should a higher-level analysis be considered before spending time considering the form for a CE submittal? After some explanation that a documented CE was as far-reaching and explanatory as an Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), FHWA felt the CE could be sufficient if each of the comments was positively addressed in the re-submitted documents. There was no discussion of the reasons for having three levels of environmental review as specified by the National Environmental Policy Act. Our interpretation of NEPA is that a CE may be employed when there is NO SIGNIFICANT IMPACT and NO PUBLIC CONTROVERSY, thus public hearings are not required.

The meeting went on to address feasible alternatives considered for South Avenue Bridge. Alternatives included rehabilitation as well as preservation in place for Maclay Bridge. This includes consideration of a new bridge but retaining the old bridge. Several comments were made that most of the ‘heavy lifting’ was completed in the Pre-NEPA Maclay Bridge Planning Study. Erik Dickson pointed out that rehabilitation of Maclay Bridge had been eliminated in the first screening of alternatives by the study. He commented on liability and costs for maintenance if Maclay Bridge were preserved under county ownership. Commissioner Strohmaier commented that he would like to see a robust analysis of preservation alternatives. In addition, Strohmaier noted that in the past he had conducted public comment analysis with the Forest Service, so he wondered if there would be any formal response to comment process. HDR suggested developing a master spreadsheet of comments that would combine public comment that has been submitted to various agencies.

Finally, the meeting participants discussed the Section 106 Process regarding the historical analysis. They seem to think there is a gray area regarding the potential for change of characteristics when modifications are made during rehabilitation. In other words, at what point does the bridge cease to be the historic structure and instead become a modernized revision? The meeting concluded with this discussion.

What happens next? Missoula County and HDR will address each of the comments returned by FHWA and MDT. They will conduct an additional study of the yellow-billed cuckoo next spring to finalize the environmental documents and resubmit them under authority of Missoula County Board of County Commissioners. MDT will review the resubmitted documents and pass them forward to FHWA who will consider final approval to fund construction. A specific timetable was not discussed. Challenges must be filed within 60 days from the approval date.

While we wait for Missoula County, MBA continues advocating our “middle way” proposal. We have a website, www.maclaybridgealliance.org, with a complete history of this project. With much less time and money, modifying the CE to support rehabilitation of Maclay Bridge is a solution the community can support. Our easily navigated website provides quickly accessed, accurate information, including proven alternatives for rehabilitation of historic Maclay Bridge provided by nationally recognized historic bridge engineers.