County looks at federal grant for Varney and Blaine Springs Bridges

With grant money from the state embroiled in a lawsuit against Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Madison County is pursuing a federal grant to help them replace the Varney and Blaine Springs Bridges.

Last Thursday, representatives from Great West Engineering out of Helena met with a handful of citizens at the Ennis High School to discuss the grant process and ask for support letters.

The Varney and Blaine Spring Bridges are located about 10 miles south of Ennis and are both considered safety hazards and in need of repair.

“These bridges are in really bad shape,” said Jeremiah Theys, an engineer with Great West.

The county pursued a Montana Treasure State Endowment Program grant to replace the Blaine Springs Bridge, but Schweitzer vetoed the funding for the project when he signed the TSEP funding bill this past spring.

In his line-item vetoes in the TSEP bill, Schweitzer also nixed funding for the town of Sheridan’s waste water treatment facility. In total, he vetoed nearly $1.5 million that was slated to go toward the two projects in Madison County.

The Montana Department of Commerce ranked the projects proposed for TSEP funding and Sheridan’s waste water treatment facility was ranked third and Blaine Springs Bridge was ranked fifth out of 36 projects slated for funding.

In response to the veto, Madison County and Sheridan have joined a handful of other towns and counties in suing Schweitzer in an attempt to re-establish the funding.

In the meantime, Madison County felt the best course of action was to try and find another funding source, Theys said.

The grant the county is pursuing is a federal Department of Transportation program call Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery or TIGER. This is the third year the program has been in place and for this round of grants the federal DOT has about $527 million available for projects, said Craig Erickson, grant administrator with Great West.

The good thing about the TIGER program is that funds are supposed to go to all parts of the country, Erickson said. The bad part is the program is very competitive, with about two percent of the projects receiving funding.

The grant application will seek funding to replace both Varney and Blaine Spring Bridges with new structures similar in appearance to the old bridges, Theys said.

“We’re looking at replacing the bridges with new structures that meet county standards, but maintain their historical integrity,” he said.

The Madison Valley Coalition, which is a community group that has raised some private money to help replace the bridges, has worked with the county and Great West on the bridge design, Theys said.

“We’ve kind of all come together on something we think would work,” he said.

The projected cost to replace both bridges is about $4.9 million. The idea is to submit a grant for the entire cost of the project, but offer up about $200,000 of matching money the county has set aside, Erickson said.

If the county can get the TSEP funding re-established, then that money could also be used as a match for the federal grant, he said.

The two bridges are on what is officially Montana Route 249, a secondary state road. The state first began looking at replacing the bridges back in the early 1990s. However at the time the state wanted to replace the old steel structures with more modern highway-type bridges, said Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz.

The community and landowners in the area were against the plan, so the state dropped the idea, he said. However, the bridges have continued to deteriorate.

On a safety scale of 1 to 100, the Varney Bridge is about a 17 and the Blaine Springs Bridge is about a 34, said Theys.

“I’d hate to get to the point where they’d have to be closed, but it’s coming,” he said.

Both bridges have a three-ton weight limit, which means they aren’t usable by emergency vehicles, said Madison County Commissioner Jim Hart.

“We need bridges that are safe,” Hart said.

Additionally, the Varney area is extremely popular with fisherman and other tourists and so the bridges have an economic impact as well.

“Obviously they need to be replaced,” he said.

The Madison Valley Rural Fire District is looking at building a new fire station near the bridges and it is crucial that those bridges be made usable by emergency vehicles, said Bernie Oglietti, spokesman for the fire district. The fire district board has written a letter in support of the TIGER grant application.

The grant application will be submitted by Oct. 31 and the county should hear whether or not they were successful by early next year. If all goes well and the county wins the grant, construction on the two bridges will begin spring of 2013, Theys said.

Signed letters of support of the TIGER grant can be faxed to the county’s grant administrator Barbie Durham at 843-5574. Letters can also be signed and emailed to her at bdurham@madison.mt.gov. For more information on letters of support, call Durham at 843-4280.

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