County considers tearing down bridge

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County commissioners are wrestling with what to do about the 99-year-old Red Bridge now that plans to renovate the river crossing have been shelved.

While they agree with the concept of restoring the 99-year-old Red Bridge near Columbia Falls, Flathead County commissioners aren’t willing to spend tax dollars on the project and no other group has been able to fund the work.

So, commissioners on Wednesday directed county staffers to start gathering detailed data about the costs of dismantling the bridge — a cost roughly estimated at $300,000.

Commissioners stopped short of agreeing to apply for a grant that would pay 75 percent of the demolition costs, but told county Planning Director BJ Grieve to put together information about the grant process and the county’s responsibilities if it receives a grant.

Because Montana was declared a disaster area following spring and summer floods this year, “a certain pot of money has been set aside for the state to address flood mitigation,” Grieve said.

Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have told Grieve they are concerned about the Red Bridge because of the risk of it collapsing into the Flathead River. If that occurred during a flood, the bridge would grab everything floating down the river, including logs, he said. Such a jam could create a second or larger hazard.

“If we can’t refurbish it, we have to look at alternatives,” Grieve said.

“This whole thing has put the county in an odd spot,” Commissioner Jim Dupont said.

“There’s a group wanting to restore a historical old bridge. Obviously that group can’t come up with the money,” he said. “Now First Best Place and the city say it’s a hazard.”

Leaders from First Best Place in Columbia Falls and the city of Columbia Falls have repeatedly brought the bridge’s deteriorating condition and its safety risks to the county’s attention while reminding the county that it owns the bridge, Dupont said.

Officials with First Best Place raised the hazard issue in an Aug. 1 letter to county commissioners. They wrote that the Red Bridge “in its present condition is blight,” violates the county’s community decay ordinance, is a life safety hazard and “a growing attraction for crime.”

The letter states that the cost of removal of the bridge will remain a county obligation. “Crime and risk will increase. Someone will be injured.”

Grieve said county officials agree.

“First Best Place highlighted the hazardous conditions of the bridge,” he said.

Even if the county tried some drastic measure, such as encasing the bridge to keep people off it, someone could climb onto it and if that person fell into the river, the county faces liability issues, Dupont said.

Safety issues also were mentioned by Commissioner Dale Lauman. Lauman would like to see the bridge repaired, but since no one has the funding to do that, he said he thinks it should be torn down.

The bridge has been damaged in two previous floods, Grieve said. In 1913 it tilted and nearly collapsed from pressure from fast and high water.

According to the State Historic Preservation Office, the bridge was built in 1911 and 1912 and opened in 1912.

For a few years, First Best Place tried to find money to rehabilitate the bridge for a pedestrian and bicycle trail. The county agreed to commit $600,000 in federal trails funds, but First Best Place was unable to collect its required matching funds by the county’s deadline earlier this year. County commissioners made the money available to other trails projects.

The most recent cost estimate to rehabilitate the bridge was $1.8 million, meaning First Best Place would have had to collect $1.2 million for the project to proceed through the county’s trails process.

The county has roughly estimated it would cost about $300,000 to remove the bridge, Grieve said. That includes an offset the county expects to be able to recoup by selling the metal, he said. But it doesn’t include any stream or river bank work that could be required.

“It’s impossible to predict the cost,” Grieve said, until the county obtains an estimate and learns what permits and requirements will be necessary.

But, he said, if the county did receive the FEMA grant, it would spend fewer county dollars to match the grant than it would end up spending if the county proceeds to remove the bridge on its own.

Dupont agreed.

“A grant is the way to go. It would be a heck of a lot cheaper. If we ignore the bridge, there could be problems,” Dupont said.

Commissioners agreed to solicit an engineering scope of services bid for the project to get a more solid estimate of potential costs for engineering, permitting and removal.

County Administrator Mike Pence told Grieve and county Public Works Director Dave Prunty that commissioners need “the worst-case scenario costs” in front of them before deciding what to do.

If the county receives a FEMA grant, it would have to put up a 25 percent match. 

Deciding to tear down a historic bridge has been a difficult decision for county officials, Grieve said.

The bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places last year, “so any removal requires review by the State Historic Preservation Office,” Grieve said. Some historic mitigation would be required, he said, such as erecting some sort of historical marker near the site.

The deadline for the county to apply to the state for the grant is March 30, 2012. The state has until June 30 to submit grant applications to FEMA. It would be another six to 12 months before FEMA makes final award decisions.

About five years ago, county officials removed the east and west approaches to the bridge to prevent access, Prunty has previously said.

A chain-link fence designed to block access to the bridge has been in place for years, he said, although it has been cut by people and patched by county employees frequently.

Signs are posted near the bridge, informing people that the bridge is closed and that people are supposed to stay off it.

From the bridge department’s perspective, the bridge is a liability, Prunty said.

Previous efforts to preserve the Red Bridge as a pedestrian/bike bridge extend back to the late 1990s but never reached fruition.

Reporter Shelley Ridenour may be reached at 758-4439 or


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