Reconstruction, widening of Higgins Avenue bridge set for 2020

Reconstruction of the Higgins Avenue bridge is scheduled to begin in 2020. (Missoula Current file photo)

With the design of the new Higgins Avenue bridge nearly complete, the public is getting one more chance to weigh in on certain details.

On Tuesday afternoon, representatives of the Montana Department of Transportation and HDR Engineering explained various aspects of the planned bridge rehabilitation project to local residents who dropped by an open house at the Wilma Theater.

A dozen posters showed artists’ conceptions of the bridge when it’s finished and aerial photos with the new bridge drawn in.

Much like the Russell Street bridge, the project is intended to rehabilitate the deterioration that’s taken place over more than 50 years. That includes replacing the bridge deck and repairing the steel superstructure and concrete supports as needed. The median will also be eliminated.

HDR project manager Dustin Hirose said the design is about 90 percent complete, and the latest estimate of the cost is around $14 million. Once the design in finalized in a few months, Hirose will have a better estimate.

The bridge will be widened during its rehabilitation.

Construction is slated to begin in 2020.

Beyond needed repairs, the bridge will be widened to create more space for pedestrians and bicycles, increasing the 4-foot-wide sidewalk to 13 feet on both sides. Two options were discussed at an open house in April 2018. Discussions are continuing on whether the bike lane will share space with the traffic lanes or with pedestrian walkways. Several people who have attended both open houses are advocating for keeping bikes separate from cars.

Others were concerned about what appears to be a loss of pedestrian access to Caras Park.

To increase the width, the bridge will be extended on the western side, leaving the eastern edge of the bridge where it is.

As a result, the plan is to reconfigure the western stairs so they descend to the north, parallel to the bridge, and then make a right angle halfway down to land in the park.

The stairs on the eastern side of the bridge are being removed.

Geoff Badenoch opposes the plans for both sets of stairs. He remembers designing the stairs when he led the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, which paid for the work.

Badenoch said the western stairs were designed so people could see the park from every landing, and that is lost with the new design. He’d also like to see the eastern stairs rebuilt the same way, but substituting metal-grid steps for the current concrete ones.

“I’m concerned we’re reducing public access rather than just refurbishing what we have,” Badenoch said. “Furthermore, utilization of the east area of Caras Park will be reduced.”

MDT representative Donny Pfeifer said MDT isn’t opposed to bringing the stairs back if someone else came up with the money.

A few people were concerned about construction interfering with activities in Caras Park.

During the first phase of construction, the southbound lanes will be closed as crews expand the bridge and repair the road. During the second phase, the northbound lanes will close.

During both phases, crews will use much of the park for staging areas, including a section extending to the edge of the pavilion and covering almost all of the east side. The bike trail beneath the bridge will also be closed part of the time.

Pfeifer said the hope is that enough construction would be finished by June or July that park activities wouldn’t be overly affected.

Public comment will be accepted until March 1. For more information or to comment, go to www.mdt.mt.gov/pubinvolve/higginsbridge.