MISSOULA — Opponents of replacing aging Maclay Bridge in west Missoula with a sleek two-lane model at the end of South Avenue lobbed broadsides Thursday night at a study that concluded to do just that.

“This process was money looking for a project,” scolded Carter Beck at the last of four informational meetings in a nine-month planning study initiated by Missoula County commissioners.

Jeff Key of Robert Peccia and Associates reviewed the findings of the nonbinding study, stressing its emphasis on finding a bridge that’s safe to use and built to handle the anticipated increase in traffic over the Bitterroot River in the next three decades.

The chosen alternative will cost an estimated $7.3 million, making it the second most expensive of seven options that emerged from a two-level screening process. Unlike the least expensive ones – major and minor rehabilitations of Maclay Bridge – a new bridge is eligible for federal Off-System Bridge Program funding, Key said.

The conclusion, which mirrored that of a more intensive environmental review in 1994, did have its supporters among a passionate but well-behaved crowd of more than 125 at the GuestHouse Inn.

“This bridge kills people,” maintained Don St. Peter of the existing one-lane span.

He cited drownings and accidents that have occurred under Maclay Bridge, 100 yards from his home. He and others blame them on an unnatural scour hole formed by a bridge pier.

“I know not many of you will agree with what I have to say, but I can’t imagine anybody saying (Maclay Bridge) doesn’t need to be replaced,” said Nancy Serba, who has lived in Orchard Homes most of her life. “We need to have a two-lane bridge at the end of South Avenue and that’s all there is to it.”

But the vast majority of those who stepped to the microphone found fault with the study’s methodology, its conclusions, and even the need for it.

The screening process gave too much weight to aspects that couldn’t be quantified, argued Don Loftsgaarden, a retired statistician from Target Range.

“When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” said Tony Menendez of Target Range. “I’m not even convinced there’s much wrong with that bridge.”

Several said the study is incomplete and/or biased. It fails to protect the character of the community, as identified by the Target Range Neighborhood Plan in 2009. It would attract excess traffic traveling at excessive speeds and add to existing issues along South Avenue and what former state legislator Willis Curdy called “Alcohol Alley” on Big Flat and Kona Ranch Road.

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Bob Schweitzer of Big Flat, who formed the Maclay Bridge Alliance to ward off the replacement of the bridge, said the findings were predictable given the makeup of the planning team.

“What you have is an engineer’s perspective of a project that has significant social impacts,” he said.

“We’re being told things that sound pretty scary about the bridge. But we know how to use a one-lane bridge,” said Fred Stewart, another leader of the alliance who lives near the end of South Avenue.

Attorney Helen Orendain, who lives off Blue Mountain Road, said it’s wrong to say the county would have to come up with its own way of paying to rehabilitate the old bridge. Federal off-system funds are available to rehabilitate bridges deemed obsolete with sufficiency ratings less than 50. Maclay, she said, is rated at 27.3.

Key spearheaded a planning team composed of 18 officials from Missoula County, the Montana Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.

He said the study doesn’t supplant an environmental assessment that would still need to be conducted if Missoula County commissioners opt to go ahead with the study recommendation.

The draft report is posted on MDT’s website, and though the floor was opened to oral presentations Thursday, only written comments will be considered by the planning team during a comment period that started Wednesday and ends Feb. 22. Key said he hopes to deliver the final report to Missoula County commissioners by the end of the month.

To submit written comment, go to mdt.mt.gov/pubinvolve/maclay/comments.shtml.