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Unseen Dangers: Dozens of Montana bridges are falling apart

MTN Investigates which heavily traveled bridges in the Billings area made a list of 80 deemed 'structurally deficient'
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Posted at 2:59 PM, Aug 28, 2023

BILLINGS - A new report from theFederal Highway Administration gives a stark outlook on the state of Montana bridges, listing some 80 as “structurally deficient."

But perhaps the most alarming part: These are bridges Montanans drive over sometimes more than once a day.

The study says in the United States, 14,000 bridges are identified as in poor condition by the FHA since at least 2014.

So MTN News set out to find the flawed bridges in the Billings area, locating five, from as far away as Columbus to as far east as Hysham.

Two are located on heavily traveled corridors, one crosses the Yellowstone River on Highway 78 in Columbus, the other is located on Shiloh Road where the bridge built in 1959 crossed over Interstate 90.

The bridge at Shiloh Road is where West End farmer Steve Miller is often seen traveling with his heavy farm machinery, often taking his combine over the very narrow bridge to and from a field.

“And we take a lot of heavy equipment over this bridge,” he said. Having just finished up his barley harvest, he’s getting ready to move heavy farm machinery onto another field traveling the bridge often to do so.

“I have rode my four-wheeler over it and have seen holes in the concrete on top,” he said.

He says the bridge is the talk of the town in that part.

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And how could it not be? Just looking at the structure of the bridge anyone can see visible cracks in the foundation and re-bar coming loose from concrete. The surface has been patched multiple times through the years.

“There are people in the community that say, gosh that thing is old,” said Miller.

And while that may be the thought, is the bridge safe? More data puts that question in perspective. A bridge with a rating of a 4 or below on the deck, superstructure and substructure indicates that the element is in poor condition.

On any given day, 1,960 cars travel the bridge, but Miller believes that figure is low with all the traffic he sees daily.

“Our road infrastructure is not very well out here,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the safest bridge around.”

And he’s not wrong. The Federal Highway Administration gave the Shiloh Road bridge a rating of a 4.

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Some 36 miles west is another deficient bridge frequently traveled by people like Eric Dye, who works as a raft guide for Absaroka River Adventures.

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When he heard the bridge was on the list of deficient bridges, he wasn’t too surprised.

“There’s a lot of people going through here and they (bridges) need to be structurally sound,” said Dye.

Many times, he’s traveling the Highway 78 bridge over the Yellowstone River as much as twice a day with a heavy school bus pulling rafts and guests out for a float.

“There are lots of trucks that go over this thing and you can just kind of hear it, especially floating under it. It’s kind of wild floating under it and you hear a big truck go over it and int just rumbles and goes crazy,” he said.

The Federal Highway Administration gave this neglected bridge a rating of a 5.

Those with the Montana Department of Transportation say they inspect these neglected bridges routinely.

“There are many factors that we consider when we are prioritizing bridges,” said Ryan Dahlke with the Montana Department of Transportation. “The condition of the structure, cost, alternate detour routes, impact to commerce.”

So where are these bridges in that lineup?

Through a public information request, MTN News learned the last time the Columbus bridge was upgraded was in 1995.

“The last rehab project included upgrading the bridge guard rail,” said Betty Huckins with MDT in an email.

MDT says there are no active plans to improve this bridge.

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The Shiloh bridge was last upgraded in 1973 also upgrading the guard rail, according to that same email provided from Huckins. 

She said a project to repair the bridge is currently in development with no construction date set.

“But above all safety is our number one priority,” said Dahlke.

In Hardin, the bridge going over the Two Leggins Canal on Old Highway 87 is listed as in poor condition with a substructure rating of a 4.

The Anita Dam Spillway bridge is listed in poor condition with a substructure rating of a 5 and the Sarpy Creek bridge in Hysham on the frontage road is also on the list, with a superstructure rating of a 4.

Miller is hoping those with MDT take notice of the visibly deteriorating bridge that he drives over daily.

“It will probably fall down someday. Hopefully, I am not the one going over it when it happens,” he said.