Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) After years of planning, construction of a new parking lot to serve the crowded Sha-Ron river access site east of Missoula will begin this spring.

Missoula County on Tuesday awarded a $367,000 contract to JAG Grading and Paving. The firm was the lowest bidder and the contract amount remains below the engineer's initial estimate and what the county has budgeted for the job.

“They plan to begin construction probably in the March or April time frame and finish up by June,” said Shane Stack, the county's director of Public Works. “They're finishing the Highway 200 retaining wall and when they're finished with that one, they said they'll jump on this project.”

The county for several years now has sought a solution to what it considers a safety problem at the popular and often crowded Sha-Ron access site on the Clark Fork River.

On hot summer days, the small dirt parking lot fills up quickly, leaving cars to park on the narrow shoulder of the highway. Passing traffic rarely slows down and the county fears that an accident is waiting to happen as recreators lug tubes, paddle boards and rafts down the highway to the river.

Over the past two years, the county, along with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the Montana Department of Transportation have worked to overcome jurisdiction issues to make the project work.

The chosen design will add around 68 parking spots on a paved lot and connect it to the access site via a trail. The project will also include restrooms, the county has said.

Under the agreement, FWP will manage the site through a recreation permit issued from MDT, which owns the right of way. The county will maintain the trail.

Stack said the county and Mountain Line budgeted around $500,000 for the project. Mountain Line will include a bus stop.

“We're well within that budget when you include all the engineering that goes along with it,” Stack said.