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New South Valley Creek bridge open for crossing

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ARLEE — Located four miles northwest of Arlee, the old South Valley Creek Bridge allowed residents, emergency vehicles, school busses, logging trucks and farm equipment to cross the Jocko River for more than 100 years. 

The bridge, owned and maintained by Lake County, was a metal truss design with wooden decking and concrete abutments. Approximately 84 feet long and 20 feet wide, the structure could only accommodate a single lane of traffic, and with a weight limit of only 3 tons, needed to be replaced. 

Talk about replacing the bridge and negotiations on the best way to do it have been under way for many years. The county could not afford to replace the bridge, so the project stalled until last spring. 

In a testament to inter-agency cooperation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes took temporary ownership of the structure and applied for and received a grant through the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Indian Reservation Roads High Priority Project fund. The grant, totaling $1 million, was enough to get the ball rolling. Soon after, DJ&A Consulting Engineers of Missoula were tasked with designing a new structure and by July 16, the old bridge was removed and the new bridge was under construction. 

Lake County Commissioner Ann Brower said working hand-in-hand with the CSKT was a productive, cooperative and pleasant experience. She hopes the cooperation will continue in the years to come and set a precedent for other projects throughout the Flathead Indian Reservation.

“Sometimes, people just need to get past the politics to help other people,” Brower said. 

 She added that plans are already being made for Lake County and the tribes to work together again in the near future to replace the Michelle Road bridge just outside of Ronan. 

“Joint ventures with the tribe have been productive,” Brower said. “We intend to continue working together in the best interests of the public.”

The new bridge reached “substantial completion” in early November, and a ribbon cutting ceremony the morning of Nov. 14 marked its completion. 

Roads program engineer Dan Lozar said the new bridge is spectacular. 

“I would expect to see my kids’ kids’ kids safely travel across that bridge,” he said. “It will be there for generations into the future.”

The new bridge is a steel beam structure with concrete decking. It is nearly 160 feet long, 28 feet wide and can accommodate two lanes of traffic. The bridge’s concrete decking is 8 inches thick and steel girders supporting it are 5 feet, 9 inches deep. With 98 cubic yards of concrete in the abutments and 120 cubic yards of concrete in the deck, the bridge contains 211,200 pounds of steel and is rated as an HL 93 Live Load structure, meaning it can safely carry vehicles weighing in excess of 20,000 pounds.

After construction, the CSKT returned ownership of the bridge to Lake County. 

Betty Mae Schall has lived in the vicinity of the South Valley Creek Bridge for the better part of 70 years. Born and raised in Arlee, Schall said she’d built and lived in three different houses. All three were within a few hundred yards of the bridge.

“Now we don’t have to worry about somebody falling through the bridge,” Schall smiled. “I think it’s great. The only way they could get anything done was to work together, and they worked together very well.”

Tribal Council members, engineers from the tribe, county and DJ&A, bridge inspectors and construction workers stood on the bridge and smiled as Tribal Council member Steve Lozar recited a prayer commemorating the occasion. 

“In all honesty, I don’t think I could have been happier,”  Dan Lozar said. “It’s hard to believe, but the project went very, very smooth. I give credence to a good set of plans and specifications and the contractors we used.”

He added that with the shoestring budgets most government agencies work with, it is always beneficial for parties to work together when they can. 

“I’m just very appreciative of all the different groups that helped on the project,” he said. “It was a collaborative effort that really shows itself in that amazing structure right there.”

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