City signs engineering firm to explore additions to Higgins bridge project

Members of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday signed off on a study to determine the options for replacing the stairwell on Higgins Avenue when the bridge undergoes rehabilitation early next year.

The study, contracted to HDR Engineering, will also revisit a proposed plaza on the bridge’s southern ramp near Third Street.

“The first step is to determine initial feasibility and cost,” said Jeremy Keene, director of Public Works. “The second step, if it is feasible, then we’d go ahead and ask (Montana Department of Transportation) to incorporate it into their plans.”

MDT plans to begin the yearlong rehabilitation of the bridge in early 2020, and it has placed the cost at roughly $16 million.

The city’s share stands at $1.7 million under the construction agreement approved last month. Funding from the city will come from transportation impact fees, and it will also pay for the design additions requested by the city.

But first, Keene said, HDR will determine the feasibility of the city’s requests.

“They’re getting ready to bid the project this fall,” he said. “We’re hoping we can get any changes into the contract while it’s out to bid.”

Keene said the project began as a simple rehab effort, though the city asked for improvements to the pedestrian walkways and other design elements.

The bridge will include four lanes of traffic and wider pedestrian and bike lanes on both sides. The lanes will be separated by a rail from moving traffic. The final project will also include a plaza proposed for Third Street outside the Penwell Building.

“We’re also in discussion with one of the property owners – the Penwell owners – to fund a portion of this work,” Keene said. “Some of the design revisions were requested by them. If there’s additional plan modifications or construction costs, we thought it was appropriate for them to share in those costs.”

Plans to rehabilitate the 55-year-old bridge go back several years, though several design issues continue to linger. The stairwell leading to Caras Park has emerged as one of the more controversial aspects of the project.

“I’m passionate about these stairs,” said Geoffrey Badenoch. “I’ve been thinking about Caras Park since 1985 when MRA first began work on that park. It’s important that when we have facilities that are challenged with different grades to remain mindful of how the public will access those facilities.”

Keene said the results of HDR’s study should go back to City Council next month. The project is expected to go to bid in October.