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New $41.5M bridge brings new hopes

Independent Record

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    TOSTON, Montana (Independent Record) — It’s Thursday afternoon at The Bunkhouse Bar & Grill near Toston and a few folks are trickling in for lunch, where the daily special this particular day is a jalapeno burger and fries for about $11.

Larissa Tatum breaks into an easy grin while taking an order from behind the bar when asked about the new bridge a stone’s throw away.

“Oh my gosh, isn’t it nice?” she says.

The state has replaced the nearly 70-year-old two-lane bridge at Toston with a new $41.5 million four-lane structure over the Missouri River that officials and others say is not only safer and meets traffic needs, but will offer more amenities.

Construction started in 2019 and is expected to be completed by this spring.

Becky Bey, public information officer for the bridge project, says about $3 million of the cost is Montana Department of Transportation funding and $28.5 million is federal funding. She said the state also received $10 million through a BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) Transportation Grant from the federal Department of Transportation.

The state notes on the DOT website the route is important for residents, agriculture, freight, and recreation. It is also popular for tourists traveling between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. The state also said the previous bridge had shown signs of age and did not meet transportation standards.

“In a recent 5-year study, this stretch of road has had higher crash frequency and more severe crashes than similar roads,” the state said on its website.

The project includes construction of 3.5 miles of new roadway, the state says on its website. Some of which will be moved over to connect to the new bridges over the Missouri River and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tracks. The two new bridges will be wider than the existing ones and will also include more room on the shoulder for walkers and bicyclists.

It will include a pedestrian tunnel, which will be open to the public but will be especially helpful to children needing to get to and from the school bus, Bey said.

And the project includes “electrified wildlife deterrent mats,” which are embedded in the roadway and deliver “an unpleasant, but safe and effective, short duration shock to animals to deter them from entering the roadway side of the fence,” according to the state website. Pedestrians can safely cross the mats wearing well-insulated shoes. Most rubber soled shoes, if dry with full tread and no cracks or conductors in the soles, will stop the shock. People are encouraged to not step on the mats.

Brian Obert, executive director of the Montana Business Assistance Connection, recently mentioned the bridge during a meeting with people from the Helena community, saying the bridge and roadway improvements to U.S. Route 287 can help Helena lure businesses.

Obert and his group are now calling the area along state Route 287 that runs from Interstate 90 to the Helena Valley “The Helena-Bozeman Corridor.” And he credits the bridge and roadway improvements with sparking economic growth.

Tatum said the new bridge is a much smoother drive and makes the road safer, as drivers on the old two-lane bridge would try to pass other vehicles and crash.

“You couldn’t see on the other side of the road,” she said.

Myrna Cazier, a resident of nearby Radersberg, agrees, noting there are many fatalities along the roadway.

“There’s a lot of crosses between here and the other side,” she said while nodding from one side of the bridge to the other.

Crews are working through the winter on demolition of the old bridges.

In 2020, the Montana Transportation Commission dedicated the bridge to retired Montana Department of Transportation employee Tim Reardon in honor of his devotion to his job, the MDT and the safety of the traveling public.

“This bridge is about more than simply helping people cross the Missouri River,” Reardon said, according to a news release. “It is about the connection opportunity for Montana communities, commerce, and the safety of the traveling public.”

Heath Gradwohl owns The Bunkhouse Bar & Grill. While he said business picked up as construction workers ate there, the new bridge has not really brought more business to the bar.

“We’re pretty consistent,” Gradwohl said, adding they don’t see too much fluctuation.

“I was wishing the state would have saved their money,” he said when asked if he was in favor of a new bridge. “Actually it is kind of a hindrance because people are driving 90 mph, whether they are coming or going. It has just made them speed up.”

But Gradwohl said it is a nice road.

Tatum agrees that the bridge has not really helped the bar’s business, and that it has made the traffic flow by at a brisker pace.

“It is scary having it go by faster,” she said.

But given a choice, Tatum is quick to say she’d rather have the new bridge.

Mike Evans, mayor of Townsend, which is about 11 miles up the road, said he had some fears about the previous structure.

“That Toston Bridge, holy cow, you can talk to any of the old-timers … there was a couple times I thought I was going to die on that one,” he said.

And what does he think of the new bridge?

“It’s a big, beautiful bugger,” he said, “It really is.”

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