Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Plans to convert the Montana Rail Link trestle crossing the Clark Fork River near downtown Missoula to a usable bike and pedestrian trail continue to move forward, a city official said Thursday.

Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, said no problems were found in the trestle's structural survey, which took place last year. As a result, the project is now in design.

“It's going to be a matter of making some proposals to the Montana Department of Transportation and Montana Rail Link to see what's acceptable to them and what will work for the community,” Buchanan said.

The Washington Corp. last April agreed to allow the city to explore other uses for the river crossing, so long as rail could be restored at a future date if needed.

The trestle is part of the old Bitterroot branch line that rarely sees railroad activity. It's also one of the last missing links on the Bitterroot Branch Trail, which extends south through Missoula into the Bitterroot Valley.

Converting the trestle into a bike and pedestrian path would fill in the last remaining gap in the Bitterroot Branch Trail. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Converting the trestle into a bike and pedestrian path would fill in the last remaining gap in the Bitterroot Branch Trail. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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While the crossing would continue the trail, it would also connect the growing Sawmill District south of the river with the Riverfront Triangle north of the river, where a blend of lodging, entertainment, housing, office and commercial development is planned.

“The Rails to Trails program has happened all over the U.S. and so there are examples out there,” Buchanan said of the trestle conversion. “What's complicated about this one is that we've got to be able to continue to use that as a rail line.”

Last spring, MRA completed a list of top priorities for Urban Renewal District II, which is scheduled to sunset in eight years. The exit plan includes the conversion of the trestle for non-motorized use, along with housing and infrastructure needs within the district, and lighting the entirety of Bitterroot Branch Trail.

Completing the exit plan will require bonding, which will require City Council approval. But the city already has signaled support for the exit strategy and the projects it contains.

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