RECENT NEWS UPDATES FROM MACLAY BRIDGE ALLIANCE (MBA)
December 6, 2017
OUR BEST WISHES FOR A MERRY CHRISTMAS & A HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Status of Maclay Bridge: Missoula County and Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) are apparently pressing forward with their pursuit of a Categorical Exclusion (CE) for design and construction of the South Avenue Bridge. Funding for construction has been obligated for 2022. The most current information we have is that the estimated cost has risen to about $16 million since the October 27th meeting between Missoula County, MDT, and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that was set up to clarify critiques of the environmental documents. Bear in mind, costs were not discussed at the meeting and this estimate is based on environmental documents that are as yet, unapproved.
The October 27th meeting between Missoula County, MDT, and FHWA did not address specific comments about the environmental document or estimated cost, so we are left to guess what courses of action the county will take to resolve them and how that may impact cost estimates. Most of these comments came from FHWA, and they often referenced comments previously submitted by Maclay Bridge Alliance (MBA). It appears that resolution of the 78 comments will be managed to the satisfaction of MDT and FHWA based upon telephone conversations, and/or closed door secret meetings between these agencies. We have to ask, how does this fulfill the requirement for transparency in government?
The official minutes of the October 27th meeting are now posted on www.southavenuebridge.com. Our interpretation of the National Environmental Policy Act is that a CE may be employed when there is NO SIGNIFCANT IMPACT and NO PUBLIC CONTROVERSY, thus public hearings are not required. We have been told there will be a public meeting before Missoula County signs off on the environmental document.
November 15, 2017
Status of Maclay Bridge: Last January, Missoula County and HDR Engineers (HDR) submitted environmental documents with a request for concurrence for a Categorical Exclusion (from National Environmental Policy Act) for design and construction of the South Avenue Bridge. The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) subsequently reviewed those documents. Seventy-eight comments were compiled by these agencies and returned to Missoula County this summer. Afterward, MDT requested that Missoula County set up a meeting of these agencies to clarify the comments. That meeting was held at Missoula County Courthouse on October 27 with representatives from FHWA, MDT, Missoula County, and HDR. County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier participated in this administrative working session. MBA members were present in the audience and we videotaped the meeting. The public was not permitted to comment. Official minutes of this meeting will be posted on the HDR website, www.southavenuebridge.com.
During the working session, FHWA asked for additional study of the yellow-billed cuckoo due to a shortage of site-specific information on this endangered species. This bird is known to visit the immediate area of the proposed bridge during seasonal migrations, so the study cannot be completed until next spring.
About half of the meeting was directed to the format of the environmental submittal. It was finally decided to maintain the narrative format as submitted by Missoula County and their consultant, rather than conform to an MDT form for categorical exclusions. Commissioner Dave Strohmaier asked if a categorical exclusion for this project was sufficient or should a higher-level analysis be considered before spending time considering the form for a CE submittal? After some explanation that a documented CE was as far-reaching and explanatory as an Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), FHWA felt the CE could be sufficient if each of the comments was positively addressed in the re-submitted documents. There was no discussion of the reasons for having three levels of environmental review as specified by the National Environmental Policy Act. Our interpretation of NEPA is that a CE may be employed when there is NO SIGNIFICANT IMPACT and NO PUBLIC CONTROVERSY, thus public hearings are not required.
The meeting went on to address feasible alternatives considered for South Avenue Bridge. Alternatives included rehabilitation as well as preservation in place for Maclay Bridge. This includes consideration of a new bridge but retaining the old bridge. Several comments were made that most of the 'heavy lifting' was completed in the Pre-NEPA Maclay Bridge Planning Study. Erik Dickson pointed out that rehabilitation of Maclay Bridge had been eliminated in the first screening of alternatives by the study. He commented on liability and costs for maintenance if Maclay Bridge were preserved under county ownership. Commissioner Strohmaier commented that he would like to see a robust analysis of preservation alternatives. In addition, Strohmaier noted that in the past he had conducted public comment analysis with the Forest Service, so he wondered if there would be any formal response to comment process. HDR suggested developing a master spreadsheet of comments that would combine public comment that has been submitted to various agencies.
Finally, the meeting participants discussed the Section 106 Process regarding the historical analysis. They seem to think there is a gray area regarding the potential for change of characteristics when modifications are made during rehabilitation. In other words, at what point does the bridge cease to be the historic structure and instead become a modernized revision? The meeting concluded with this discussion.
What happens next? Missoula County and HDR will address each of the comments returned by FHWA and MDT. They will conduct an additional study of the yellow-billed cuckoo next spring to finalize the environmental documents and resubmit them under authority of Missoula County Board of County Commissioners. MDT will review the resubmitted documents and pass them forward to FHWA who will consider final approval to fund construction. A specific timetable was not discussed. Challenges must be filed within 60 days from the approval date.
While we wait for Missoula County, MBA continues advocating our "middle way" proposal. We have a website, www.maclaybridgealliance.org, with a complete history of this project. With much less time and money, modifying the CE to support rehabilitation of Maclay Bridge is a solution the community can support. Our easily navigated website provides quickly accessed, accurate information, including proven alternatives for rehabilitation of historic Maclay Bridge provided by nationally recognized historic bridge engineers.
September 24, 2017
Status of Maclay Bridge continues to slowly evolve. As we reported in July, Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) were conducting a review of environmental documents submitted by Missoula County for approval of a Categorical Exclusion (CE) for South Avenue Bridge. That review has been completed and we have received a copy of comments produced by MDT and FHWA. Combined, these comments comprised more than sixteen pages referencing the environmental documents, the historical Determination of Effect, and the Concurrence Request for Categorical Exclusion.
We are pleased to report that the efforts of Maclay Bridge Alliance (MBA) are finally showing signs of significance to this project. MBA was mentioned within these comments at least nine times, and FHWA has asked that our multiple letters be reviewed and considered by the county. MBA letters addressed a number of issues including safety, historical significance and importance of Maclay Bridge to the character of the neighborhood, rehabilitation, traffic patterns and control, inadequacies of existing streets to serve a new two-lane bridge, traffic projections, and more. Most of these concerns were never acknowledged or answered by Missoula County or the consultant.
What happens next? MDT suggested a meeting be held to include the county, the consultant, FHWA, and MDT to address the comments to foster understanding. MBA asked about the time and place for this proposed meeting so that our representatives could attend. MDT replied that the suggestion had been forwarded to Missoula County and they would be responsible for setting up the meeting. We wrote to Missoula County to be sure they were aware of our request. We have heard nothing in response. Apparently they are busy considering responses to the lengthy comments from FHWA and MDT on the draft environmental documents.
One of MBA's questions was "Would FHWA require Missoula County to repay money expended to this point in the project if the county pursued a no-build option?" FHWA's comments to the County was "FHWA does not pay for work for projects that never get built. If the county were to have a no-build NEPA document now, no payback would be required, but that is not what is proposed."
That comment opens the door to reconsideration. On several occasions county commissioners have stated, incorrectly, that if they didn't build the bridge they would have to repay all the costs of the NEPA/MEPA study to date. Now is the time to reconsider whether it makes sense to push forward with the proposed CE. Sixteen pages containing some seventy-eight comments could be interpreted as a notice that this project, as presented, is on the wrong track.
While we wait for Missoula County, MBA continues advocating for our "middle way" proposal. For a lot less time and money, modifying the CE to support rehabilitation of Maclay Bridge is a solution the community can get behind and demand. Our website provides quickly accessed, accurate information, including viable alternatives for rehabilitation of Maclay Bridge provided by our nationally recognized engineers.
July 15, 2017 (Updated: 7-31-17)
Our last update delivered several months ago, reported on the status of Maclay Bridge and its proposed replacement, South Avenue Bridge. Though the preliminary engineering and environmental reports were due last November, the final documents were not submitted to Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) and Federal Highway Administration until January 9, 2017. (As you may recall, some preliminary environmental reports had been submitted as early as September and reported in earlier project updates.) Maclay Bridge Alliance (MBA) wrote letters of objection based upon the Categorical Exclusion (CE) requested by Missoula County to avoid requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). MBA directors also drove to Helena to protest the CE. In that capacity, we delivered acceptable alternative paths for this project.
Though we expected a decision within a few weeks, we heard nothing. Inquiries in April led to a report that Federal Highway Administration had completed their review of the environmental document and sent it back to Montana Department of Transportation. MDT was doing an intensive legal review.
Several inquiries to MDT since April have gone unanswered. Status updates from MDT and Missoula County are being neglected with bureaucratic silence. In the meantime, landowners adjacent to both the Maclay Bridge route and the South Avenue Bridge route are left in limbo regarding this decision and that impacts their land values.
What happens next? If the decision is to go forward with the CE, engineering design will resume and a public meeting, originally scheduled for last November will be advertised and held. Such a course of action will likely spawn a lawsuit. On the other-hand, if the decision moves toward an Environmental Impact Statement, work will be scheduled for that approach. Finally, if the decision is to rehabilitate Maclay Bridge, a CE can more than likely proceed and the work can commence for that option, saving time and millions of dollars.
Finally, news you can use:
We have a new website (the one you're on now) at: MaclayBridgeAlliance.org. Use of our old web addresses will automatically bring you to this site, so we urge you to visit. The easily navigated site provides quickly accessed, accurate information about the status of the South Avenue Bridge design and environmental report. It also provides viable alternatives for rehabilitation of Maclay Bridge provided by our nationally recognized engineers, and it offers a form for membership in MBA. Please check it out and let us know what you think.
May 25, 2017
Design of the South Avenue Bridge to replace Maclay Bridge has progressed to the point of agency review. What was anticipated as a fast moving stream of information and events leading to a Categorical Exclusion (CE) to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has seemingly bogged down. The CE would declare "No significant impact" by construction of the replacement bridge, but deliberations on this issue have gone behind air tight administrative doors, and schedules have been abandoned without explanation.
An application for the CE was completed by Missoula County's consultant along with environmental reports last January. These were submitted by Missoula County to Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) and passed forward to Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in Helena in early February. Though the formal application is not available, the environmental documents are published on the South Avenue Bridge website at southavenuebridge.com. FHWA said that they would conduct their review and reach a decision by early March.
Maclay Bridge Alliance sent letters to FHWA concerning inadequacy of the CE in early February. We were assured that the concerns addressed in those letters would be considered. We understand that they have completed their work and sent comments back to MDT. We also sent a letter to the governor's office with a copy to MDT Director Tooley asking for a meeting. That meeting took place in Helena February 27 where we addressed specific details of the CE inadequacy and we offered alternatives. We were told a decision would be made soon.
Issues addressed at Helena meeting included:
- Lack of identification and mitigation of impacts
- Availability of funding for historical bridges
- Insufficient consideration for alternate designs
- Safety for area residents, pedestrians, bicyclists
We have patiently waited through March, April, and now May with no word. An inquiry sent to MDT in April was answered with a message that MDT had completed their review but the response was being formulated and would be evaluated by a contract attorney. We were led to believe the evaluation was imminent. Now June is at our door but a decision and the administrative findings continue to remain secret.
April 15, 2017
It seems our expectation of major decisions has been waylaid. The county has said they are moving forward with the Categorical Exclusion (CE) on South Avenue Bridge, but the last report from them was that Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) had completed their review of the environmental document and sent it back to Montana Department of Transportation (MDT). MDT was doing an intensive legal review.
Federal Highway Administration reviewed the South Avenue Bridge environmental submittal that is key to approval of the CE, and continuation of the design. Shortly after it had been sent, we wrote a letter to FHWA. The letter outlined reasons that a CE was not appropriate and we provided examples. They responded that they would consider our letter as they conducted their review.
We then wrote a letter addressed to Governor Bullock and Montana Department of Transportation Director, Mike Tooley. We asked them for a meeting to discuss new information regarding Maclay Bridge. The Governor's office responded and the meeting was held in Helena February 24th.
In attendance were Adam Schafer, Sr. Policy Advisor to the Governor, Mike Tooley, Lynn Zantos and Dwain Kailey from MDT. MBA was represented by Directors Fred Stewart and Bob Schweitzer, Member Sharon Sterbis, and Political Advisor Jim Parker. As the meeting closed, we felt that it had been a good meeting. We had proposed two options for them, 1) conduct a full EIS in which they give full consideration to rehabilitation of Maclay Bridge, and 2) go forward with a Categorical Exclusion for the rehabilitation of Maclay Bridge. We explained that the county may be more amenable to the CE approach for rehabilitation if they did not have to repay the fees and expenses committed to date on South Avenue Bridge. Our estimate is that over $700,000 has been spent to date on the project. We left them with a request that they consider our presentation and advise us of their decision.
We have received no communication from MDT in spite of their expectation that they would reach a decision by early March. Several weeks ago, Fred wrote a letter to Dwain Kailey asking if they had come to a conclusion. He responded that they were undergoing a thorough legal review, but their contract legal expert had other obligations and could not get to it immediately.
The County sponsored public meetings (put on by the consultants) have received large turnouts of citizens -- mostly those opposing the new South Avenue Bridge. We hope for continued large turnouts at the upcoming public meetings. That way, when the commissioners are faced with a decision of how to proceed, once they receive the environmental document, your presence and voices will be seen and heard demanding a REHAB OPTION for Maclay Bridge as part of the alternatives to be considered.
Several hundred people in front of the commissioners when they are making decisions will clearly show the level of opposition to the proposed South Avenue Bridge project. Not just "a few NIMBYs at the end of South Avenue", as characterized by the supporters of the new bridge.
MBA will notify you as soon as we have an update on project status, and when the next public meeting will be held. In the meantime, feel free to call MBA with questions you may have.
February 25, 2017
Maclay Bridge Alliance (MBA) activity is increasing and we expect major decisions soon. The Missoula County Commissioners (BCC) are moving forward with the Categorical Exclusion (CE) on South Avenue Bridge, and we are taking determined steps to stop it.
Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has begun reviewing the South Avenue Bridge environmental submittal. This review is key to approval of the CE, and continuation of the design.
Several weeks ago, we wrote a letter to FHWA. The letter outlined reasons that a CE was not appropriate and we provided examples. They responded that they would consider our letter as they conducted their review.
Shortly thereafter, we wrote a letter to Governor Bullock and Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) Director, Mike Tooley. We asked them for a meeting to discuss new information regarding Maclay Bridge. The Governor's office responded and the meeting was held in Helena yesterday.
January 15, 2017
With the New Year, new developments continue for Maclay Bridge Alliance so we want to be sure you are informed.
Missoula County submitted the draft environmental document to Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) for review in December. We believe that review is complete or nearing completion. We also expect to see some new information regarding the soils program for South Avenue Bridge since the HDR (the local engineering firm that has been retained by Missoula County) technical team had a drill rig out in the river drilling additional bore holes last week.
Agency reviews of preliminary environmental documents related to South Avenue Bridge continue and some have been returned to Missoula County and HDR. Preliminary reports have been posted at www.southavenuebridge.com, under "Documents." HDR re-scheduled to deliver the finalized environmental document early this month. We expect Public Meeting Number 3 will soon follow.
Maclay Bridge Alliance has also been busy...
We are pleased to report that Maclay Bridge has been officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Listing occurred December 21, 2016. While this listing does not assure the preservation of Maclay Bridge, it most certainly gives credibility to its rightful consideration as a historic bridge and one that should be considered for rehabilitation.
The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) states, in part:
"It is the policy of the Federal Government... to use measures, including financial and technical assistance, to foster conditions under which our modern society and our historic property can exist..."
The proposed South Avenue Bridge project made no attempt to consider alternatives to meet the basic objectives of the NHPA. It is only through the efforts of local residents, who bore the expenses of finding qualified engineers experienced in the rehabilitation of historic bridges, that options to preserve Maclay Bridge were identified. It is possible to meet the letter and spirit of the NHPA by preserving the Maclay Bridge and to continue using this structure at much less cost than the new replacement bridge.
December 18, 2016
Agency review of preliminary documents related to the South Avenue Bridge project continues, and some have been returned to Missoula County and HDR. Preliminary reports have been posted at www.southavenuebridge.com, under "Documents." There have been no new revelations in the reviews to date that we have not heard about. HDR is scheduled to deliver the Environmental Document in early January. We expect Public Meeting Number 3 shortly after that.
MBA has noted an agency insistence that Maclay Bridge be removed and the river cross-section at that location be returned to its "natural form". To date, we have not seen any document that defines natural form, but HDR removal plans do not show any change in the rip-rap or total removal of the constriction point.
Strict interpretation of the natural form requirement would certainly set off some alarm bells for homeowners downstream or in the vicinity of the bridge. "Natural form" would not include rip-rap that has been placed along River Pines to protect the road embankment, or the hard constriction point at the west bridge end.
Changing these features will undoubtedly change the channel pattern that has been long established. That means erosion and deposition patterns will also change.
This news is based on documents MBA received from Missoula County and Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) under the Freedom of Information
Act. It also includes information received from the county's engineering consultants, HDR.
PUBLIC MEETING #2
The Technical Design Committee (TDC) met June 14 at the offices of HDR Engineering. Project status was discussed, as was the date for the next public meeting. HDR will schedule the second public meeting, now tentatively planned for August 9 or August 11, 2016. Goals for this meeting were not discussed.
WORK IN PROGRESS
As of June 14, there has been no further fieldwork accomplished, but HDR showed bridge alternative designs to the TDC. Seven alternate designs were shown to us. These are preliminary designs, adapted to two crossings shown in this letter as Alignment B & C.
A hydraulics report should be completed during the week of June 21. This report will provide hydraulic feasibility of all 7 current bridge designs. DNRC and FEMA have suggested that the revised floodplain with the hydraulic modeling be submitted to them.
The noise analysis has advanced as far as it can pending selection of the road and bridge alignments. Consideration of the River Pines portion of the route by HDR discovered utilities in the right-of-way. This will require a utility survey to ascertain exactly what utilities are present and who owns them so the designers will know how to proceed. River Pines also requires additional consideration because a meander of O'Brien Creek comes quite close to the present roadway, and the elevation at the Big Flat Irrigation crossing is a key element in determining the elevation for the new bridge.