Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With the Northside Pedestrian Bridge closed until further notice, residents living north of the Montana Rail Link switching yard in Missoula have only a few options to reach the other side of the city, and most of them require an automobile given the distance.

Those who can walk have the Orange Street underpass as an option, though it sat in poor condition until recently.

The city's department of Public Works and Mobility this week worked with the Montana Department of Transportation to begin repairs to the underpass, starting with the structure's crumbling sidewalks.

“This project was done as sort of a quick response,” said Brian Hansel, deputy director of streets for Public Works. “This was done with MDT to try and get some of these sidewalks on the underpass brought up to a little safer condition due to the expected increased use of bike and pedestrian traffic on the underpass because of the Northside bridge closure.”

Last June, an MDT official told Missoula County that the agency had completed a report on the underpass in 2020. The results recommended a rehabilitation of the structure, particularly the tunnel's concrete elements.

Pieces of the tunnel have been chipping away for years and in some areas, the iron underpinnings have been exposed. MDT at the time said it would nominate the project for funding. The tunnel serves as a vital north-south link in Missoula.

“The sidewalks in many cases should be removed and replaced,” Hansel said of the underpass, adding that time didn't allow for that this season. “There were places where the concrete was pretty much completely gone.”

Northside Bridge. (Mark Moss photo via Flikr)
Northside Bridge. (Mark Moss photo via Flikr)

The city was able to make some repairs to the sidewalks, with labor and material costs being reimbursed by MDT. But some members of the City Council would like to see the work go further, including improved lighting.

Some people have said they don't feel safe while walking through the tunnel.

“I keep getting a lot of comments about how (the lights) aren't very bright,” said council member Jennifer Savage. “It's quite dark.”

Hansel said he would talk to MDT about the lighting situation, especially as the underpass is expected to receive more traffic with the Northside bridge closure.

“I'm going to clean out the sidewalks under the underpass,” Hansel said. “If they want to get in there and change out those lights while we have one lane blocked in the middle of the night, it would be an opportune time to do that.”

In early October, the city's consulting firm HDR suggested the “immediate closure” of the Northside Pedestrian Bridge. While the bridge is not yet 25 years old, it's suffering from deck pan damage and cracks in its masonry walls.

Repairs aren't expected until early next year at the soonest.

“It's too bad it took the bridge being closed to get this done (to the underpass),” said Council member Heidi West. “This work is badly needed.”