By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
FRENCHTOWN – Going on midnight back in June, emergency dispatchers called Missoula County Public Works to report a gaping hole in the Main Street crossing over Mill Creek. Scouring from runoff had eroded the roadbed, causing a partial collapse in the pavement.
While the problem has since been patched, county engineer Erik Dickson said the structure remains deficient, threatening access to nine households, a church and Frenchtown Elementary School.
“The culverts are too small, so when the water shoots through at high flow, it’s eroding the downstream portion,” Dickson told Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday. “It’s hydraulically unstable and we’re destroying the channel.”
To fix the problem, the county is hoping to secure roughly $650,000 in transportation funds that would likely come from a proposed infrastructure bill up for consideration by the Montana Legislature. A similar bill died on the last day of the session two years ago.
Bullock joined Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss, an engineer and other officials on Wednesday to tour the Mill Creek crossing and to discuss the county’s infrastructure needs.
The governor’s $292 million infrastructure bill – a blend of cash and bonding – includes $2.7 million for Missoula County. The funding would go far in addressing several pressing bridge needs, including the Bible Lane Bridge over Petty Creek in Alberton, and the Main Street crossing over Mill Creek in Frenchtown.
“An appropriate-sized crossing would benefit the channel itself and the aquatic habitat,” Dickson told the governor. “It’s a fish barrier right now because of the velocity and the alignment. We want to get that addressed for the environmental concerns and the structural concerns.”
The two bridge projects combined carry a price tag of roughly $1.1 million, including $625,000 for Mill Creek. That project would include a span of 62 feet and an 8-foot sidewalk for students. It would also eliminate the risk of flooding and improve public safety.
Bullock said his infrastructure bill would help address such needs across the state.
“This is everything from bridges to sewer and water,” said Bullock. “If you’re going to continue to have a viable community, first your kids have to find a way to get to school, and you need clean water. Nineteen school buses go by here four times a day, and the thought that you could lose that access is very significant to the community.”
Major infrastructure projects have failed to pass in the last two legislative sessions. In 2015, a $150 million infrastructure bill died by a single vote in the House on the last day of the session, despite passing the Senate 47-3.
Bullock, a Democrat, said he’ll continue to work with the Republican majority to get the bill passed. He has asked that it be made one of the session’s highest priorities, not wanting it to fall victim to politics as the Legislature wears on.
“The need for infrastructure is one that transcends partisan lines,” Bullock said. “We’ve heard from both Democrats and Republicans throughout that we need to get this done.”
Bullock said each community he has visited across the state has expressed its own unique infrastructure needs. While that may be bridges in Missoula County, for the town of Froid it’s a modern sewer and water system.
Without it, Bullock said, “that town is gone.”
“There are always going to be greater needs than funding allows,” Bullock said. “The funding we’re proposing through our infrastructure bill significantly impacts projects all across the state. For the individual communities, these projects will make a meaningful difference.”
Commissioner Curtiss said the county will apply money from its bridge fund to help match anything provided by the state. If the infrastructure bill fails, the project would likely go unaddressed for several more years.
“If we don’t get it, the school loses access,” Dickson told the governor.
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org