Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A proposal to alter a railroad bridge on the Bitterroot branch line near downtown Missoula to allow bicycle and pedestrian traffic won funding to begin the project's first phase, that being a study to determine if the idea is feasible.

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency on Thursday approved a $341,000 contract with HDR to study the bridge, consider its structural integrity and present a number of conceptual renderings. Given the age and unique qualities of the bridge, the inspection could take time.

“The bridge was built around the late 1800s and the girders are relatively unique,” said Dustin Hirose, a project manager at HDR. “At this point, there are no plans for those girders. The only way to analyze them would be to access the structure by climbing methods. It does take a little effort and time to go out and do that.

The city has a proposed an exit strategy for Urban Renewal District II, an area that includes the bridge and portions of the Bitterroot Trail. The strategy identified a number of public project priorities the city hopes to complete before the district sunsets in nine years.

Converting the bridge to bike and foot traffic was included as a priority. Montana Rail Link permitted the city to explore the change, which would complete the Bitterroot Branch Trail from downtown Missoula south to Hamilton - a stretch of nearly 50 miles.

But MRL's approval also required that any changes to the bridge not eliminate the potential for future rail traffic.

“MRL is not abandoning the Bitterroot spur,” said Todd Gass with MRA. “Any modification of the bridge comes with the condition that it can also be used for rail use if that need arises in the future. This is the final critical link in the Bitterroot Trail.”

If the bridge passes inspection, the city would proceed to the project's second phase next year, which would include firmer design concepts and cost estimates.

“If we pass those checkpoints, we'll proceed on,” said Gass. “We have a couple ideas in mind that we want to investigate.”