Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While the Beartracks Bridge in downtown Missoula spans the Clark Fork River and connects local neighborhoods, it also links the past with the present, and Missoula County believes the recent renovations deserve recognition.

On Tuesday, commissioners signed a letter supporting the Montana Department of Transportation's entry into a 2024 federal award competition. The category: quality of life and community development.

“Not only has Beartracks Bridge increased the quality of life for our residents' present and future, but it's also helping raise awareness of our past,” the county wrote in its letter to the America's Transportation Awards Committee.

The bridge underwent a multi-year renovation costing around $17 million and was officially dedicated as Beartracks Bridge in late 2022. The name was submitted by Missoula County after consulting with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

The name Beartracks, or Sx͏ʷuytis Smx̣e in the Salish language, was selected by the tribe to honor the Beartracks family lineage, which has been associated with some of the most highly respected Salish leaders over the past 200 years.

Among them, Alexander Beartracks signed both the Hellgate and Lame Bull treaties in 1855. His daughter, Mary Beartracks, later married Louis Vanderburg, who served as a subchief under Chief Charlo.

“It's a big achievement in our public story telling of who we are and how we got to where we are,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick.

But the newly renovated bridge does more than recognize the past, it also marks a significant improvement over the prior structure. The old bridge, which had begun to decay, had narrow sidewalks and no room for non-motorized transportation.

The old Higgins Avenue bridge. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
The old Higgins Avenue bridge. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

“Residents who visit the city’s bustling downtown often prefer to walk or bike, and the former, more narrow bridge often led to congested sidewalks for pedestrians and close encounters between cyclists and vehicles,” the county noted. “The new bridge, with its widened design and separated bicycle/pedestrian pathways, makes travel much easier and safer, no matter the mode of transportation.”

The bridge project increased the 4-foot-wide sidewalks to 13 feet on both sides. While a number of options were initially on the table, the Montana Department of Transportation was receptive to local input and worked to ensure the new bridge included the sought amenities.

The county believes MDT is now worthy of recognition and the federal award.

“With Missoula's ever-growing population and industries, such as tourism, as well as its popularity as a community offering multimodal travel options, including bicycles and public transit, the bridge is now equipped to accommodate modern transportation needs and future growth,” the county wrote.