It's not nearly as bad as having traffic shut down across the Reserve Street Bridge.

But this unexpected closure of a much smaller, and older bridge on the west side of the Missoula Valley is going to create a lot of inconvenience for hundreds of drivers every day. And it also adds miles to their morning and afternoon commute.

However, Missoula County officials say they have no choice but to barricade the iconic Maclay Bridge, after the most recent inspection shows it's in no condition to handle traffic any longer.

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Bridging the Bitterroot

The Maclay Bridge has a long history

For decades, the steel span bridge has carried people across the Bitterroot River. However, engineers have warned for years that the crossing was far beyond its service life. Since the 1990s, the community has debated over replacing the bridge. Those fights have pitted Target Range neighbors for years, with some favoring replacement and relocation of the bridge, while others have argued for it to remain, with some restoration.

In recent years, the one-way bridge has been under load limits.

Unsafe for traffic

Thursday afternoon, Missoula County Public Works announced it was closing Maclay Bridge, effective Friday morning, because of the safety concerns. And that includes pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

That means anyone wanting to reach the west bank of the Bitterroot will have a long drive around, adding miles to the trip. Residents, or people wanting to reach popular trailheads and recreation spots must either drive south via Blue Mountain Road and U.S. 93, or north, driving across Big Flat onto Mullan Road and entering the city via Reserve.

Is it gone for good?

Time will tell. The Montana Department of Transportation is already planning for a new bridge, but that project isn't expected to start until 2026, meaning two years of a very long detour.

The county says it will do an assessment of the bridge and try to figure out whether it might be re-opened to some traffic if repairs are cost-effective.

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A look back at one of Missoula's biggest construction projects

Gallery Credit: Dennis Bragg