Mention of the Blaine Springs and Varney Bridges over the Madison River will draw memories of fishing the river near the bridges for many, and also concerns of safety when traversing the two historic local landmarks.
Local, state and federal funding has made it possible to seriously pursue rebuilding and replacing the dated bridges in a unique community and government partnership that began about six years ago. Since then, a little more than $1 million has been secured for the project. Nearly $700,000 of the estimated $1.35 million cost came from a Treasure State Endowment Program grant and Madison County contributed $343,931. Private donors have pitched in about $56,000. The Montana Department of Transportation will provide the remainder needed.
Madison County Commissioner Jim Hart said locals’ recognition of the importance of the bridges and their generous donations are appreciated.
“It took the Department of Transportation’s commission all of about five minutes to approve this,” MDT Deputy Director Pat Wise said. She attributed the fast action to the unique group and partnership leading the charge.
Varney Bridge dates back to 1895. The bridge, which has a generous three-ton weight limit, ranks high on the list of bridges in need of repair in the state. The Blaine Springs Bridge is two years older than Varney, and will be replaced first in order to make access for construction on Varney easier.
“Varney is a hard one to tackle since it is about twice the size of Blaine Springs and will cost about $4 million,” Jeremiah Theys of Great West Engineering said.
The group leading the charge is committed to keeping the bridges’ character with the replacement bridges. The size will be kept the same too with minor changes in order to create proper right of way and slightly wider traffic lanes.
Blaine Springs provides some challenges for the construction with some steep grade and an S-curve. Improvements will need to be made to the approach.
“We started with asking if we could possibly just rehab the bridges, but that was not viable,” Theys said. The bridges may be kept and used as a facade for aesthetic purposes, Theys said, but that would add about $50,000-$100,000 to the cost.
If not used for a facade, the bridges will be taken off site and put up for adoption. Theys said the historic structures would not be torn apart.
The start of work on Blaine Springs will begin in 2015 at the earliest. A limited window for construction could delay the project. In the meantime, Theys and others hope the bridges hold out under the constant strain of traffic that includes commercial vehicles as well as trailers and farm and ranch equipment. If one of the bridges were to be severely damaged or, at worst, collapse, there is an emergency pot of money, but Theys said it would take a lot more than what is available. Currently, the center pier of the Varney Bridge does not actually support the bridge. There is about a two-foot gap between the pier and the bridge base.
The area around the bridges will not be shut down during construction. A work bridge will be constructed to get equipment on site and people can access Varney from the south while work is done on Blaine Springs.
Design and construction are being administered by the Montana Department of Transportation. Great West is acting as a design consultant. Together, they will hold a number of public meetings before construction begins. Public comment will also be accepted.
“We want to make sure that folks are comfortable and there is a lot of public involvement,” Theys said.