Bridge becomes county's top priority

Custer County Commissioners have made repairing the deck of the Tusler Bridge a top priority but the earliest repairs can be made is 2020.

Approval of the funding cannot take place before the 2019 Legislature. 

 “We hope the day doesn’t come when we have to shut it down for safety reasons,” Commissioner Jason Strouf said.

The bridge was never intended to be a convenient access to the Kinsey project farms.  When it was built more than 100 years ago, it was as a railroad bridge for the now defunct Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad.

When the Milwaukee Road folded up shop in Miles City back in the 1980s, it left lots of relics behind, including the Tusler Bridge.  Custer County was deeded the bridge and what was a rail line became a convenient road.

Unfortunately, the Tusler Bridge was constructed as a railway bridge.  

While the superstructure is in excellent shape, considering it’s age, the deck, which was converted to car and truck use, is not. 

When the state evaluates a bridge for its structural sufficiency, in the past, the deck or roadway portion of the bridge was only a small portion of the score.  A recent change in that system now made the deck portion of the bridge a larger portion of the evaluation so if the bridge is in wonderful shape but the deck can’t actually be used, the bridge itself is now considered deficient. 

On a scale of 1-10, anything under 5 is declared deficient and according the company the rated it, bridge is rated a 5.

While the county commissioners were attending a Montana Association of Counties meeting about transportation last winter, Commissioner Keith Holmlund was talking to personnel concerned with secondary road and bridge maintenance.  They suggested, with the change in rating system, to begin the steps to apply for a Treasure State Endowment Program grant for the Tusler Bridge.

Since the county can’t afford to replace the bridge decking itself as its cost is estimated to be between $1.25 and $1.5 million, the TSEP grant seems like a solution to the problem.

However, the TSEP grants are only authorized every other year, when the state legislature is in session, and Holmlund was told there wasn’t adequate funding for the bridge this go-round.

The county can get a jump on the application and is by declaring the Tusler Bridge as the highest priority repair in the county.  The county can also begin setting aside funding for a match for a grant application.  The more money the county has for match, the more money the county can apply for and the higher their application will be rated.

The commissioners saved some money on the project.  Prairie County has an almost identical bridge that also needed study and the two counties were able to “piggyback the costs,” according to Holmlund, in order to save on the initial engineering work.

There are two main ways to access Kinsey, the bridge and from the west. 

The bridge saves the residents in the eastern portion of Kinsey many miles to get to town. 

Sugar beet farmers in the area have trucks making multiple trips each day headed east during harvest. The bridge saves them about 20 miles each way, each trip. 

It also is the main route to two fishing accesses.