Bigfork Eagle: Following Closure of historic bridge, Tester urges Secretary Buttigieg to ‘act rapidly’

by Jeremy Weber

U.S. Senator Jon Tester last week sent a letter pressing Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg regarding Bigfork’s historic Bridge Street Bridge, which safety inspectors closed in January after a troubling inspection revealed safety concerns.

Writing to Secretary Buttigieg, Tester stressed the importance of the Bridge Street Bridge to Bigfork’s community and economy. 

“This historic bridge is critically important to the economic success and safety of the Bigfork community, which is one of Montana’s most popular summer tourism destinations,” Tester said in the letter. “I am concerned about the immediate effects that this bridge’s closure may have on the ability for local residents and tourists to travel to and from Bigfork’s main street.”

Tester went on to cite his concerns about how the bridge closure will affect tourism, which accounts for $506 million in the Flathead County economy each year.

“I am concerned that Bridge Street Bridge’s closure will significantly impede tourists’ ability to travel to and from Bigfork, and in some cases, may dissuade them from visiting altogether,” Tester wrote.

The bridge was closed January 31 after an inspection by the state Department of Transportation determined that the bridge can no longer reliably carry traffic or large numbers of pedestrians.

Built in 1912 and designed with a 75-year expected lifetime, the bridge has long outlived the builder’s estimations, but the clock appears to have finally run out on the historic structure.

Now, Flathead County is left scrambling to come up with temporary solutions as citizens wait for construction of the new bridge to begin.

“I understand MDT initially scheduled work to begin in 2023. Unfortunately, it appears this project was delayed until 2026 with lack of funding availability as a key contributor,” Tester wrote. “I understand bridge replacement projects can require significant investments. That’s why in 2021, I helped to write and pass the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which appropriates funds each year for the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Bridge Formula Program.”  

“This year, Montana will receive $45 million through this program, $6.75 million of which must be used for off-system bridges like the Bridge Street Bridge. It appears to me that repair or replacement of the Bridge Street Bridge would be an excellent use of Montana’s Bridge Formula Program funding,” he continued.

Tester called on the Secretary to move quickly to assist the Montana Department of Transportation with any technical assistance needed for the project. 

“In the coming weeks, I ask that you prioritize working with the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) and the local community to develop a plan to swiftly deploy funds from my bipartisan infrastructure legislation to address this bridge closure and restore traffic flow to the community,” he wrote.

Federal highway and bridge money secured by Senator Tester is delivered to Governor Gianforte and the Montana Department of Transportation, who are then in charge of working with local stakeholders to deliver specific projects like bridge replacements. 

Tester ended his letter by strongly urging Secretary Buttigieg to support efforts to replace the bridge. 

“I ask that you act rapidly to support Montana’s efforts to replace the historic Bridge Street Bridge,” he concluded.