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Transit, development highlight pending Brooks Street study

Mountain Line passengers wait at the transfer station at Southgate Mall on Tuesday. A plan funded by the city and the Missoula Urban Transportation District, among others, will study the infrastructure needs of the Brooks Street corridor, including future bus stops and development strategies. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

The convergence of several studies geared toward Midtown Missoula could help city leaders apply for a sizable federal grant to redevelop the Brooks Street corridor, an effort that would maintain current traffic volumes while catering to the district’s evolving character.

If the vision pans out and the necessary steps are taken, it could also help Mountain Line launch 15-minute bus service along Brooks Street, creating Missoula’s version of the MAX Light Rail connecting the Portland suburbs with the downtown business district.

“There are certain densities with jobs, residential and retail destinations that have to be there to sustain high-frequency transit,” said Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “For us to be competitive for a TIGER grant, or to be successful in this notion of transit-oriented development, we need the underlying parameters and substance of how we get there.”

Taking the first step, MRA last week approved a $50,000 funding request to help pay for a larger study geared toward building the infrastructure needed to create transit-oriented development within the Brooks Street corridor.

The study, which carries a total cost of around $150,000, would result in a conceptual plan that would make dangerous intersections easier to cross, locate the placement of a future parking garage, and explore new regulatory guidelines to achieve greater building densities.

Annette Marchesseault, project manager with MRA, said the study would also identify future bus stops along Brooks Street, as well as a new Midtown transfer station.

“Brooks is a state corridor and the Montana Department of Transportation feels very strongly that it’s for cars, and so we can’t lower the level of service,” she said. “But we feel there’s a strong possibility of getting people out of cars and onto the bus to intercept traffic from the Bitterroot and lower congestion. We have to find creative ways to make those intersections serve dual purposes.”

While MRA and a number of other funding partners look to the transit and development study on Brooks, the Missoula Urban Transportation District has also launched a study to set strategic goals for the next 30 years.

Mountain Line launched its zero-fare pilot project three years ago and has seen ridership increase far beyond expectations, adding roughly 500,000 new riders since 2014. But with the pilot program winding down just as the demand for service climbs, the agency is reexamining its future, which includes a look at Brooks Street and the possibilities presented in a redeveloped corridor.

“As you can imagine, trying to design a transit network with a fixed and limited budget that serves the needs of as many people as possible is a real challenge,” said Bill Pfeiffer, the agency’s community outreach coordinator. “We frequently hear from people who want more service. That’s challenging for us because we can’t provide any more service than we’re currently providing.”

Whether Mountain Line launches 15-minute service on Brooks may depend on a number of factors, most of which hinge on how the corridor develops in the coming years.

While several large projects that cater to the Brooks Street vision are either under way or proposed, including plans around Southgate Mall, several smaller projects will do little to achieve the density needed for Bolt! service.

Among them, the Missoula City Council this year approved a Metro Express Car Wash on South Brooks Street on a large piece of property where the Howard Johnson Inn now stands. While the project will create around 15 jobs, critics say a single-use business represents a step in the wrong direction when developing a sizable piece of property within the corridor.

The development and transit study approved by MRA and other city departments would explore such issues, including the need for regulatory guidelines that would encourage developers to build at maximum densities within the corridor.

“For instance, with high-frequency transit and transit-oriented development, there might be some minimum standards instead of maximum standards,” said Marchesseault. “The development that’s occurring in Midtown isn’t even touching the maximum densities that are allowed.”

Buchanan agreed, saying the Brooks Street study needs a diverse team capable of exploring, and eventually presenting, the district’s wide-ranging needs. Having that plan in place would make the city more competitive for a TIGER grant.

“It’s not a straightforward engineering study, nor is it a straightforward transit study,” Buchanan said. “If we need 15 units per acre of residential, how do we achieve that? Do we have minimums that you can build as opposed to maximums? We’re looking for all those tools out there.”

MRA said the development and transit study will be completed by the end of this year, giving the city time to apply for the federal TIGER grant next spring.

Issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the competitive grants are typically awarded to innovative projects that increase multi-modal transportation and are difficult to fund through traditional federal programs.

“Our target is a TIGER application that would support up to $20 million,” said Marchesseault. “It’s an 80-20 match, and we feel anything over $20 million would be difficult for us to match.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com