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Bridge on Little Bitterroot Road to close for replacement

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HOT SPRINGS — Christensen Bridge, the third bridge from Montana Highway 28 traveling east on Little Bitterroot Road about three and a half miles from Hot Springs, will be closed for replacement March 18-April 8, according to a press release from the Lake County Commissioner’s Office.

“It’s bad enough that I’m telling you it should be closed. That’s pretty bad,” said Montana Department of Transportation bridge engineer Kent Barnes. “Quite frankly, it should have been closed the day the commissioners were told to close it. That thing is in danger of collapse under any load, in my opinion.”

The bridge was inspected by MDT engineers Feb. 19.  A letter from Barnes and MDT to Lake County Commissioners dated Feb. 20 required the bridge closure. Bridge conditions and operations engineer Amanda Jackson said the commissioners asked for a two-week grace period to inform the public. Jackson agreed, but told them as far as she was concerned, the bridge should already be closed, and they’d be taking a risk leaving it open. 

Lake County Commissioners announced the bridge closure shortly after, scheduling the closure from March 4-29. Less than a week later, the Lake County Commissioners pushed the dates back to March 18-April 8.

“Due to the time frame of permitting the Alteration of Aquatic Land or Wetland on the Flathead Reservation, we will need to wait until (March 18) to start work,” the press release read.

“(The bridge is) in really bad shape,” Jackson said. “The sub-structure is in really bad shape. It’s got pile that’s broken off on the abutment ... our inspectors poked around under the piles and they’re not sure what’s holding it up, other than maybe some rocks.” 

Barnes said his records indicate the bridge, spanning the Little Bitterroot Creek, was built in 1965. However, as the record was created after 1965, it is unclear when the present structure was erected. The road existed well before 1965, meaning another bridge was once in place over the same creek. Old pilings from a previous structure are still visible under the bridge. 

“It’s very possible that when it was built in 1965, they reused parts of the old bridge,” Barnes said. “They didn’t go out and hire an engineering firm to design a new structure back then. They probably just used what they had.”

Barnes and Jackson both said the structure could collapse at any time. 

“I just don’t know how long it will last; it’s unpredictable,” Jackson said. “It could fall today or a month from now; it’s too hard to know when it’s in that kind of condition. I would not drive over it. It might hold me, but it’s not so much a weight thing. It might not even be the weight of a truck that causes the problem; it’s just starting to fall down on its own.

“Lake County has some bridges that are in tough shape, but this is the worst I’ve seen so far.”

Little Bitterroot Road is the shortest way to travel from Ronan to Hot Springs. With the bridge closed, those in the Mission Valley wishing to travel to Hot Springs must drive north to Elmo and take Montana Highway 28 south, or south to Ravalli and U.S. Highway 200. 

Jen Christensen and her husband Shawn operate a ranch spanning the creek, making travel across the bridge a daily necessity. In addition, the Christensens have cattle and hay on the other side of the bridge. The closure make calving season extremely difficult on the family. 

“It’s an older bridge, and it needs to be repaired, but if they were going to (replace the bridge), we wish they would have done it last summer,” Christensen said. 

Hot Springs School District normally sends a bus across the bridge every day to pick up around six children. The bridge closure will force the district to send an additional bus for these six students, effectively adding a half-hour to the round-trip journey. The bus’s new route will take it over Wilks Gulch Road. 

Christensen said Wilks Gulch Road has a sign reading, “This is a minimally maintained road; travel at your own risk.” The road is not plowed for snow and was never intended to carry a school bus filled with children. 

“If the weather stays as it is now, they’re fine,” Christensen said. “If we get snow and mud, that road is untravelable ... but it’s the only option to get the kids to school.”

Lake County Commissioner Ann Brower said the project will be completed in-house and the new structure will be erected from steel. While Lake County had to obtain a construction permit from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, it will not be a joint operation, as was the case with the South Valley Creek bridge project last year. 

Brower said the road is well-traveled, “part of why we didn’t do this immediately,” she said. “We needed time to let the schools plan another route, allow emergency notice and allow public notice.”

Lake County is in the process of putting up warning signs along the road east of Sloan’s Bridge. 

“Once you’re on that route, (the bridge is too far down the road) by the time you get there to turn around and come back,” Brower said. “We want to give people enough notice.”

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