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Bridge opens sooner than expected

Traffic resumed today over the Milk River on U.S. Highway 2 between Havre and Chinook when a temporary bridge opened at 9 a.m.

The new structure was in place just 16 days after the bridge collapsed during an accident involving two tractor-trailers. State officials had rushed to reopen the 5-mile section of highway that was closed as a result, and end a detour over a series of gravel roads.

Within a week of the Nov. 18 collapse, MDT awarded a contract to Tamietti Construction Co. of Great Falls to build a temporary bridge over the river. Nine days after construction started, the bridge was finished and opened to the public.

The bridge will be used until next fall when MDT hopes to complete a permanent replacement bridge about 60 feet to the south of the temporary structure.

"It's pretty incredible to think that in 2 weeks since the accident happened, they got this thing done," said MDT district maintenance chief Dave Hand.

MDT Great Falls district administrator Mick Johnson said in a press release Wednesday he is thrilled at how quickly the project was finished.

"They did a phenomenal job," he said. "This is incredible."

Two construction crews operating in 10-hour shifts worked every day except Thanksgiving to get the project done. Under the contract with MDT, Tamietti Construction had until Dec. 20 to complete the bridge.

"I knew all along we'd get it done earlier," company owner Bill Tamietti said today. "Highway 2 is the lifeline of the people up there. That was one of the issues - we wanted to get it done as quickly as possible."

Tamietti said another consideration was the hefty incentive the company was given to complete the bridge quickly. The MDT contract included a bonus of $5,640 for each day prior to Dec. 20 that the bridge was finished. The figure was equal to the daily amount MDT estimated it cost the public to use the detour, including wear and tear on vehicles, lost wages, and extra fuel consumption.

"We earned it," Tamietti said. "We busted our butt and got it done. This was kind of a shift-on-the-fly operation. We provided the design, we provided the material, we provided the equipment. Highway 2 is an important link up there. It makes us look good and it makes the highway look good. It's a win-win situation."

The temporary bridge project entailed removing the collapsed bridge and designing and building a new one to similar specifications. The temporary bridge has a steel foundation and girders, and a wood and asphalt deck. It is 24 feet wide - the same width as the previous structure - and about 120 feet long.

Baltrusch Construction of Havre was subcontracted to perform the paving work, Tamietti said.

The bridge has the same weight capacity as the previous one, and can accommodate wide-load traffic, which was not allowed on the detour route. The speed limit on the temporary bridge is 45 mph.

"This bridge is capable of doing everything that a permanent structure does," Johnson said in the press release. "The only restriction, if you can even call it that, will be a 45 mph speed limit - and we're doing that because we want to ensure the longevity of the asphalt deck."

Tamietti credited the speedy completion of the bridge to the experience of his construction crews.

"You just need to have the right people. Some of those guys have worked together for 30 years. We had all our key people working together on that," he said.

The opening of the bridge today beat earlier estimates. The day after the bridge's collapse, MDT officials said they did not expect to have a replacement until sometime early next year.

The desire for a quick turnaround was evident early on, Johnson said.

"The accident blocked the road at about 6:20 that morning," he said in the press release. "By 7:10, Blaine County had a crew out helping us set up the detour, and we had traffic flowing on the county road within two hours of the accident."

The Milk River bridge collapsed about 6:44 a.m. Nov. 18 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 have been transported during daylight hours.

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

Traffic using Highway 2 between Havre and Chinook was detoured along an 8-mile stretch of dirt and gravel roads with access to Chinook from the southwest. The detour added 10 to 15 minutes of additional travel time and forced wide-load trucks to use alternative routes.

The detour was closed twice since the bridge collapsed. The first time was when a tractor-trailer got stuck sideways across the detour, blocking traffic for about three hours. The main detour was closed again Nov. 24 so road crews could make repairs, and traffic was routed along an additional 15-mile detour.


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