“Golden spike,” bike-actuated stoplight to mark Bitterroot Branch Trail completion

The Bitterroot Branch Trail will follow the old railroad across South Avenue, pictured, and pass long a new park emblazoned with a golden spike, signaling with the two ends of the trail come together to fill in the final gap. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When construction crews finish the last link in the Bitterroot Branch Trail this spring, the adjacent plaza will be stamped with a golden spike, giving a nod to the trail’s railroad history.

The tribute, planned as an ornament in the Montana Rail Link park also set for construction this spring, will mark the final leg of the 50-mile trail linking downtown Missoula with Hamilton along a corridor once dominated by locomotives.

“We’ll be creating a monument for our golden spike project, marking where the north link and the south link of the Bitterroot Trail come together,” said Tod Gass, project coordinator with the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “It’ll be a two-foot-diameter bronze medallion set into stamped and colored concrete.”

According to the design plans, the golden spike will sit in a circular plaza serving as the confluence of a number of new trails. While the Bitterroot Branch Trail passes north and south, a new trail extension and greenway will connect Central Avenue with Johnson Street across the park.

MRL agreed last year to sell the 12-acre property to the city for $2 million, or roughly half its value. In the future, MRL will add interpretive signs to the plaza, noting the area’s railroad history.

“There’ll be some text inside the medallion talking about the trail connection between Missoula and Hamilton, and the efforts of building this trail and its importance of connecting communities,” said Gass. “The golden spike stays with the railroad theme of the park.”

On Thursday, MRA’s board of directors awarded the construction contract for the trail’s last segment to JAG Grading and Paving for $424,000. It was the lowest of four bids and construction is expected to start this spring.

The final piece of the project follows last year’s opening of the pedestrian bridge spanning South Reserve – the busiest street in Missoula. The new crossing and completion of the trail at the golden spike ends a decade-long community effort to create one of the longest paved trails in the state.

While getting cyclists over five lanes of heavy traffic on South Reserve served as one hurdle in the project, another emerged at South Avenue. There, the city will employ new-to-Missoula technology that senses cyclists and changes the light.

“It’s what we call an induction loop,” Gass said. “When the bicycle parks in the little box, the induction loop is under that box, and there’s a sensor that can tell if there’s a bike waiting. It sends a signal to the traffic-control box to activate the crossing signal.”

Gass said the crossing itself will be delineated by a green path. A bicycle traffic light will signal riders when it’s safe to cross.

“It’ll be activated during the phase of traffic movements when left turns are happening off South Avenue,” Gass said. “That was important to our traffic division because it doesn’t add any delay time to the intersection. It operates within the current phasing of the traffic signal.”

Schematics of the golden spike monument.