The Montana Department of Transportation rerouted all traffic from Interstate 15-90 to Montana Street on Wednesday to repair a damaged guardrail, leading to heavy and slow traffic through the area.
While that work was completed at 4 p.m. and the interstate reopened, the major road upgrade and bridge replacement project taking place just west of Butte will likely continue to disrupt traffic on the interstate until Aug. 28, 2020, the project’s completion date.
The Rarus/Silver Bow Structures project, as it is officially known, began in April, just a month after Great Falls’ Sletten Construction Company won a $24 million contract to replace four bridges and rebuild the roads before and after them, according to William Fogarty, the Butte-based district construction supervisor for MDT.
Sletten started its work by closing the interstate’s northbound and eastbound lanes and consolidating two-way traffic in what are normally the southbound and westbound lanes. The change in traffic pattern also necessitated the closure of Interstate 115, which connects the interstate to Montana Street via Iron Street.
But the contractor has faced delays during the project’s first phase, which was scheduled to be completed by this month. That didn’t happen, according to Fogarty, because the steel girders needed for the bridges being rebuilt on the interstate’s eastbound side didn’t arrive on time.
Fogarty attributes that delay, in large part, to President Donald Trump’s imposition of steel tariffs, which he says had “impacts on steel production across the nation.”
While that “critical item” didn’t arrive until September, Fogarty said crews have since made significant progress on both eastbound bridges.
Work on the shorter of those bridges was recently completed, and Sletten aims to begin pouring the bridge deck on the longer, 598-foot bridge on Dec. 10.
Due to expected cold weather, the contractor will have to tent and heat the bridge while the concrete cures. Officials anticipate that process will take a minimum of two weeks, according to Fogarty.
And once the deck is ready, it will likely take another two weeks or so for barrier railings and other finishing touches to be put on the bridge.
If all goes according to schedule, Fogarty says at least one of the interstate’s eastbound lanes should reopen in mid-January.
Once that happens, traffic heading in both directions will no longer be consolidated in the westbound lanes for the remainder of the winter.
But once construction season starts again, likely in April of next year, officials will close the westbound side of the interstate, consolidate traffic in the eastbound lanes and begin work replacing the two bridges on the westbound side.
That will mean repeating the process that’s currently being undertaken on the westbound side of the interstate, but Fogarty anticipates things will go more smoothly the second time around.
His optimism is due in part to the fact that the new eastbound lanes will be wider, smoother and newer. As a result, even though traffic will be consolidated again, the lane heading in each direction will have more room to accommodate cars and trucks.
Another reason he’s optimistic the project’s second phase will go more smoothly concerns the steel that’s required. Though tariffs remain in place, Fogarty says the girders needed for the westbound bridges have already been ordered and should be fabricated in plenty of time.
As a result, Fogarty expects work on the westbound lanes to be complete in mid-November of 2019. When that happens, the interstate will more or less go back to its normal configuration.
Though the project’s third phase is expected to begin in spring of 2020 and continue through that August, it will only require occasional single-lane closures as crews put on the finishing touches, such as landscaping and signage, Fogarty said.
And in the meantime, local drivers can look forward to one impending improvement in the current situation: the reopening of I-115. According to Fogarty, the connector from the interstate’s City Center exit to Montana Street should reopen “in the next couple of weeks.”
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