Safe passage: South Reserve pedestrian bridge opens

Bikers, hikers and just about everyone else crossed the South Reserve Street pedestrian bridge on Saturday after a ribbon-cutting ceremony that opened the crossing to public use. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Under a beaming spring sun, hikers, bikers and general curiosity seekers stood at the base of the new pedestrian bridge spanning South Reserve Street on Saturday to celebrate the structure’s grand opening, one that completes years of work and connects one of the longest paved trails in the region.

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency first unveiled plans for the $4.2 million structure in January 2015, just as work began on a $4.5 million trail running from the bridge’s western ramp down to the community of Lolo.

“This is the last link in a 50-mile separated pathway from downtown Missoula to Hamilton,” said Jim Sayer, executive director of Adventure Cycling. “This is going to be one of the gems in Montana. It’s going to be a huge asset for local tourism. For bike tourism and the local economy, it’s going to be great.”

Bridge construction began last April, shortly after the Missoula City Council approved MRA’s request for a 25-year bond to pay for the project. Debt repayment will come from tax increment financing in Urban Renewal District III, an area of Missoula that has seen increased development over the past two years.

Ruth Reineking, a member of MRA’s Board of Directors, said that while the agency has long partnered with public and private entities to help improve economic vitality, create jobs and encourage investment, the new bridge represents a milestone in public infrastructure.

“Through MRA, the city has constructed all pedestrian bridges in Missoula,” said Reineking. “This bridge, though, is by far the most high-tech, beautiful and exciting bridge project we’ve completed.”

The bridge extends 707 feet and includes a 190-foot span over South Reserve Street, which has served as a barrier to those on Missoula’s south side looking to access Fort Missoula Regional Park.

According to the Montana Department of Transportation, more than 43,000 vehicles travel South Reserve each day, making it among the busiest roads in the city’s urban core.

“It’s wonderful this bridge connects downtown Missoula with Hamilton,” said Ward 6 City Council member Marilyn Marler. “But I’m specifically more excited just for the residents here in Wards 5 and 6 on this side of Reserve, because it’s going to be one of our main linkages to get to the new regional park at Fort Missoula.”

The park also saw its grand opening on Saturday.

While the bridge saw its share of controversy, supporters billed the project as a social justice issue, saying South Reserve and its heavy traffic effectively bisect a major city neighborhood, leaving area residents little choice but to take a car to access nearby parks and open space.

Mark Bellon, president of the Missoula Midtown Association, sees the project as a needed neighborhood enhancement.

“It connects two major trail nodes and gives us a corridor to travel out to the parks and other amenities,” said Bellon. “It’s a great asset as far as serving the community, serving the thousands of people who work in our Midtown district, and serving our residents and visitors.”

After former Missoula mayor Danniel Kemmis cut the ribbon, an estimated 100 people crossed the bridge, some on bikes, some on foot and some in strollers. Traffic on South Reserve rushed below.

While the project has been criticized by some as unnecessary, Mayor John Engen said that following through with the effort was the wiser decision, one that will enhance the quality of life in the city’s Midtown.

“I’ve had people ask me why we did this,” Engen said. “Local government, working together, is ‘we’, and we are responding to the needs of the community. We’re responding to the people who are asking us to do great things. We’re responding to the people who want our community to be better.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com