Consider a detour: Madison bridge project kicks off next week

Work below the Madison Street bridge has already begun, the reconstruction efforts will shift to the upper deck next week, when traffic will condensed to one lane in each direction. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

The Montana Department of Transportation and a Missoula-based contractor plan to begin reconstruction of the Madison Street bridge next week, a project that’s expected to impact traffic through much of 2017.

Erected in 1958, the bridge was deemed structurally deficient in August, roughly six months after a piece of concrete broke lose and fell to the riverbank below. That forced MDT to expedite a $7 million reconstruction effort and complete the work between football and academic seasons at the University of Montana.

Courtenay Sprunger with Big Sky Public Relations, right, and Bob Vosen with the Montana Department of Transportation, discuss the Madison Street bridge project during a news conference on Wednesday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“You’ll be down to one lane in each direction until August,” said Mike Murphy with Frontier West, the project’s general contractor. “It’s going to be an inconvenience. The public is going to have to give itself more time or take alternative routes.”

Acting on the advice of MDT, the city closed a stretch of sidewalk on the Madison Street bridge last February for safety reasons. The cycle of freeze and thaw had eroded the concrete, opening holes in the decking and lending views of the Clark Fork River below.

While the bridge wasn’t slated for reconstruction until 2020, the local transportation district moved the project onto this year’s list of high-priority jobs. Work below the bridge began earlier this year and the entire project is slated for completion before the Montana Grizzlies football team opens its season against Valparaiso University on Sept. 2.

“The main reasons we started late is because we knew traffic was going to be an issue, and we wanted to get it done before next season’s first football game,” said Murphy. “If it’s below zero, we’ll have some delays. Equipment doesn’t work as well. That’s just how it goes.”

The bridge was originally constructed in 1958 after the Montana State Highway Commission awarded a contract to Pew Construction Co. in Missoula. The winning bid at the time was $683,000.

According to the project’s marketing firm, Big Sky Public Relations, the bridge received an upgrade in 1981. But by June 2012, an inspection report by MDT suggested the bridge was showing signs of deterioration. It was finally deemed structurally deficient in August 2016.

Bob Vosen, district construction engineer with MDT, said the agency opted to expedite the project for safety reasons. The bridge serves roughly 12,600 vehicle trips each day and is a main north-south connector between the University District and downtown Missoula.

“We just moved it up on our priority list,” Vosen said. “We went to a design-build concept, which is a little different than our standard design-bid-build project, where MDT designs the project and we let it out for bid and the bid contractor constructs it.”

With time and budget key to the project, Vosen said MDT sought qualified contractors paired with a qualified design firm to compile a package. As presented, the replacement bridge won’t be any wider, though the travel lanes will be narrowed to make room for wider sidewalks and bike paths on both sides.

Vosen said the design-build method will save time and money.

“It allows us to move along quicker because the design isn’t completely finalized when we start the construction,” he said. “We started work on some of the stuff in November, and we’re not quite 90 percent complete with the total design of the project.”

The $7 million project is expected to employ between 20 and 25 people and involve as many as eight different subcontractors. Phase 1 will begin next Tuesday, when traffic is condensed to the southbound side of the structure. Phase 2 will shift traffic to the northbound side.

“This project will have a large public impact,” said Courtenay Sprunger with Big Sky PR. “But I like to equate it to pregnancy. It may be miserable for nine months, but the tradeoff is the miracle that comes in the end.”

Sprunger said project updates will air on three radio stations, including Montana Public Radio, Mountain FM and the Blaze. Weekly meetings will also be conducted every Monday morning at 11 a.m. at the Double Tree Hotel.

Big Sky PR also plans an email and digital advertising campaign to announce updates.

“We also encourage people to stay engaged and look for updates from their neighborhood council,” said Sprunger.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at