With costs rising, city to replace Caras Park stairwell with bridge project

The city will likely replace the old Caras Park stairwell as the Higgins Avenue bridge undergoes rehabilitation next year. The cost of modifying the old stairwell is more expensive than replacing it with a new stairwell that meets modern standards. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Plans to reuse the stairwell leading to Caras Park off the Higgins Avenue Bridge may be fading from the list of possibilities, as the cost of keeping the structure outweighs the cost of simply replacing it.

The Montana Department of Transportation will begin its $16 million rehabilitation of the bridge early next year, and the city’s share currently stands at around $1.7 million.

Ahead of the project, the city contracted HDR Engineering to study the feasibility of building a public plaza on the south end of the bridge in the Hip Strip, and reusing the old Caras Park stairwell with the new bridge.

“Our hope was that we’d be able to keep the cost of reusing those stairs to a similar number to what MDT had programmed for just replacing the stairs with a new stairway,” said Jeremy Keene, director of Public Works. “Initially, it did look like that was going to be feasible.”

The stairs no longer meet ADA standards and other federal regulations around accessibility. As a result, they will need modifications to bring them up to compliance.

But a number of issues make that challenging, including the current railings. Extending the railings to code would reduce the amount of decking, Keene said, making portions of the stairwell difficult to navigate.

Widening the deck would add significant costs to the project.

“The additional cost to modify these stairs is probably going to be substantially higher than the cost of replacing them with a new stairway,” said Keene. “We have to ask if that’s a good use of public money.”

The replacement stairs will include features similar to what currently exists, including a viewing platform and easy access to Caras Park.

But that didn’t satisfy park advocates, including Geoff Badenoch. While he wasn’t opposed to losing the old stairwell, he did oppose the design of the new stairwell.

“We need to keep in mind the purpose of those stairs, and that’s access to the park,” he said. “If I had it in my power to say what’s done, I’d say scrap the new stairs, do away with these (new) stairs, and start looking at the project anew.”

The new Downtown Master Plan envisions a renovated Caras Park with expanded uses. While details haven’t been publicly released, Badenoch said a working committee is crafting the park’s next iteration.

The master plan envisioned an outdoor skating rink that could double as a splash pad in the summer. Public gathering would expand by doing away with the parking lot. The plan envisioned a parking structure topped with housing and a year-round market space.

Whatever form the changes take, Badenoch said the city should invest now in the stairwell and save money later.

“We’ve got big plans coming,” he said. “There’s going to be some amazing things that are going to happen in Caras Park. We should take this opportunity to wipe the slate clean and rethink the problem, and come up with a different mindset.”

Keene said the city will make one last try with an engineer to explore the full cost of modifying the existing stairwell, though it must reach a decision soon as the bridge project goes to bid.

Keene said the existing stairwell would be reused at a separate city facility if it’s removed.