DRUMMOND – Since the morning of April 4, 2019 the residents of northwestern Granite County have been stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The collapse of the mountainside along the northern edge of the Drummond Frontage Road that morning blocked both lanes, cutting off access to residents who use it to travel west into Missoula. It left them with a choice – drive the 10 miles back to Drummond to access the I-90 or brave the unpaved Mullan Road that runs under and along the south side of the highway to Bearmouth. That on-ramp is located some six miles away at mile marker 138 on a road with several blind curves and a surface that, according to residents, is a rough washboard most of the year.
“We either have to go to Drummond or take the ‘Ripple Road’,” said Kat Wood, resident of the Bear Gulch area. “Even after it’s graded its maybe two days and its right back to being as bad as it was before.”
Wood’s daughter, Michele Christmas, also lives four miles above the Frontage Road and needs the access to Missoula due to a medical condition called SAPHO Syndrome. The condition affects the skin, bone and joints of the victim. It causes extreme sensitivity, swelling and growth in the bones and specifically the chest wall. Whenever Christmas needs treatments, she has to go to Missoula for steroid shots.
With the Frontage Road being blocked since April, she has had to either traverse back to Drummond to get on the I-90, which adds 40 miles round trip, or navigate the ‘Ripple Road’ which jars her bones as he rides or drives.
“The logging and MRL (Montana Rail Link) trucks coming flying down that road and they drive right in the middle,” said Christmas. “They practically push us off when they come flying by.”
Christmas and several other residents in that area have medical conditions that require trips to Missoula on a somewhat regular basis.
Wood, Christmas and others that live in the area have had no word from the state as to what, if anything, was being done to clear the rock slide since April 4.
That is, until Wednesday.
The Flint Creek Courier managed to make contact and get an update on just what MDOT (Montana Department of Transportation) plans to do.
“One of the issues we’ve had is the rain and moisture this year,” said Chad Pearson, a Maintenance Technician with MDOT. “It has kept it very fluid up there until just recently when we had this dry stretch.
“We have had some of the larger boulders and rocks removed out there and have plans to get a contractor come in next week (Aug. 26-31) to install a jersey rail. That will create a 300-yard stretch of one-lane road that will make it passable until we can get a better idea of what the long-term solution might be.”
The stretch of the road is straight enough and short enough that travelers would be able to see other cars as they approach the single-lane area and use it without the need of a temporary stop light system.
But Pearson also noted that MDOT is currently considering what will be done with the road, stating that, “… all options are on the table.” Those options could be anything from a permanent rail, to a wall or even the possibility that MDOT may abandon the road altogether.
The blockage has also meant some changes for local school children, as buses have had to alter their schedule slightly to make up for using Mullan Road. But according to bus driver Marty Sackman, it’s not a huge change that would be quickly remedied if MDOT gets the Frontage Road reopened, even to one lane.
“It’s about 12 minutes slower, so we’ve pushed pick up times ahead 10 minutes to account for that,” said Sackman.
Sackman noted that there are two students that currently live in the Bear Gulch area and a total of 10 that are affected by the change in pickup times on that route.
Wood, Christmas and fellow resident Kat Cox, who was also at the meeting, are cautiously optimistic that the state will follow through.
“We’re hopeful, but I’ve got to see it to believe it,” said Christmas.
Wood stated that if MDOT doesn’t get the blockage cleared, she’ll begin a campaign to get some kind of action with Granite County and the State of Montana.