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Bridge to somewhere

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On a sunny Monday afternoon, the South Reserve Pedestrian Bridge is a fine place to get a 360 degree view of the mountains surrounding Missoula. Look down, and the view is of boxy retail stores, a car dealership and many, many cars on the road. The bridge, which connects the Bitterroot Branch trail to the Missoula-to-Lolo trail, allows cyclists and pedestrians to cross Missoula’s largest, fastest surface street.

It also has become a flashpoint in debates over city spending and infrastructure priorities. At the launch of her mayoral campaign, Lisa Triepke distributed mailers featuring a doctored image of the bridge with a giant screw through it. City Council candidates have described it as a “bridge to nowhere”—a phrase popularized by Sarah Palin in describing an unbuilt bridge in Alaska.

Missoula Redevelopment Agency Director Ellen Buchanan says the bridge didn’t cause taxes to rise, because the bonds that were issued to pay for the design and construction will be repaid by tax increment financing funds. The tax base of an Urban Renewal District (the bridge is in URD III) is frozen when the district is created, and increased tax collections resultant of rising property values is the “increment” used to finance special projects.

“We can’t take that money and patch potholes,” Buchanan says. TIF funds have to be spent within their district and can’t be taken by the city to pay for city services, she says.

Rachelle Christopher was using the bridge for the first time to go from her office to pick up her car after it had been worked on. “I honestly think it’s stupid. I think its a waste of money,” Christopher says. Her desk sits in front of a window overlooking the bridge, and she estimates that “just a handful” of people use it each day.

Actual daily usage numbers currently hover around 200, and the bridge is being used by twice as many cyclists as pedestrians, according to Ben Weiss, of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian program. Data from a counter installed on the crossing is viewable at eco-visio.net by entering “public” for a login and password, so anyone can see the trends for the Reserve bridge and several other trail crossings in Missoula. In the summer, some days saw more than 500 crossings.

“The total count since open is approaching 50,000 people crossing,” Weiss says. “There was clearly latent demand. It went from no one crossing to 300 people a day crossing.”

As the sun begins to set, Sydney Morical stops for a minute during her afternoon run. “If I’m on my bike or if I’m running, this is always the route I take to go south, especially if it’s the afternoon, because the sun shines right up this whole segment right here,” Morical says. She says she uses the bridge two or three times a week. When offered an apology for the interruption of her run, she’s gracious: “Anything to further thank the people that decided this was a good idea!”

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