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Bridge may reopen next month

State transportation officials hope to have the Milk River bridge on U.S. Highway 2 between Havre and Chinook repaired by Dec. 20, the Montana Department of Transportation said today.

A contract to repair the bridge was expected to be awarded sometime today, MDT division maintenance chief Dave Hand said.

"I was told this morning that they were planning on selecting a contractor today," Hand said. "It is my understanding that the contract is to get traffic back on the bridge by Dec. 20, and includes a considerable incentive for each day before that."

Blaine County Commissioner Don Swenson said he also had been told that the bridge would be repaired by Christmas. If the contractor can repair the bridge by then, it would beat by a month the eight-week estimate MDT officials gave last week.

The bridge collapsed Tuesday morning during an accident involving two tractor-trailers, when a bulldozer being hauled on one of the trailers severed a support beam on the bridge.

The collapse forced MDT to close a 5-mile section of the highway and reroute traffic along gravel roads to the south. U.S. Highway 2 is the major transportation route across northern Montana. About 3,000 vehicles use the section between Havre and Chinook each day, according to MDT.

The 11-mile detour begins on Logie Road just west of the collapsed bridge, goes south to a Blaine County cut-across road that provides access to Clear Creek Road, and then heads east into Chinook. The cut-across road was going to be closed for part of Friday so state and county road crews could apply gravel to its surface. Bad weather prevented the crews from performing the work, which has been rescheduled for Tuesday.

"The work we planned to do Friday we got weathered out on, and we're still planning on doing it tomorrow, weather permitting," Hand said.

When the cut-across road is closed, traffic will be rerouted farther south to another part of Clear Creek Road, a detour of an additional 15 miles. The work on the cut-across road, which should be completed in a day, will help the road better accommodate the high amount of traffic that uses the detour, Hand said.

"I think it's in good shape," he said. "This cold weather helped us out a bunch. It held pretty good through the weekend. We like warmer weather, but that's where we run into trouble, when the road softens up. That's why we're going to gravel it tomorrow."

The main detour was closed Friday morning due to a tractor-trailer blocking traffic. The rig was stuck sideways across Logie Road, blocking traffic for three hours, Hand said.

"We had it completely shut down from about 7 to 10 (a.m.)," he said.

The driver of the truck had missed a turn and drove off the road into a field, then tried to get back on the road at a sideways angle and got stuck, blocking traffic, Hand said.

Some drivers have chosen a northern route around the collapsed bridge, a route both Hand and Swenson said they did not recommend.

"We're not posting a detour to the north, and prefer that people stay on the roads we've designated," Hand said.

The northern route has two railroad crossings, including one without signals, as well as a series of small bridges with low weight limits and sharp turns, Swenson said.

"If we can get people to use the normal bypass, it's a lot better detour," he said.

The northern route has been used by Chinook and Havre locals, but not by commercial traffic, Hand said. Officials have not established a weight limit for the state-designated detour, but MDT has ordered that wide-load trucks be rerouted, he added.

"If they're hauling legal axle loads, we're allowing them through," he said "The width is our primary concern."

Most of the wide-load trucks have been detoured through Lewistown, Hand said.

Swenson said the decrease in wide-load traffic would likely have some impact on the local economy, but that the impact would be small.

The Milk River bridge collapsed about 6:44 a.m. Tuesday when a bulldozer being hauled on the trailer of an eastbound truck, driven by Dave Williams, 59, of Havre, clipped a bridge pylon and twisted clockwise on the trailer, the Montana Highway Patrol said. A ''ripper'' unit mounted on the back of the dozer tore into the rear portion of an empty grain trailer of a westbound truck and destroyed a second, smaller ''pup'' trailer, the patrol said.

Then the dozer blade severed a support beam on the southwest corner of the bridge, causing the bridge to collapse, according to the patrol.

Neither Williams nor the other driver - Michael Shroyer, 46, of Billings - were injured.

According to the Highway Patrol crash information report, Williams' truck was not equipped with warning lights or accompanied by flag vehicles, as required by law for wide-load cargo. The report also said the load should only been transported during daylight hours.

Williams declined to comment about the report last week.

The results of the crash investigation has been forwarded to the Blaine County Attorney's Office for review, the Highway Patrol said.

No charges have been filed.


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