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City to look at widening Higgins bridge, cutting lanes

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Just as the Missoula City Council considers a funding request to study Higgins Avenue and a potential reduction in lanes, it will also be asked to contribute funds to widen the bridge during a planned rehabilitation project set for 2020.

While the council has yet to act on either request, the debate on funding the lane study and the bridge widening has already begun, and it surfaced Wednesday during a brief discussion among the council’s Public Works Committee.

Within the next three years, the Montana Department of Transportation plans to rehabilitate the Higgins Avenue bridge, a project that carries an estimated cost of $11.6 million.

While the designs are not yet complete, the city is lobbying for a wider bridge to accommodate non-motorized transportation. Preliminary designs would include a 12-foot-wide walkway on the east side of the bridge and a 13-foot walkway on the west side.

“We’d like different pedestrian and bicycle facilities than are out there right now,” said city engineer Kevin Slovarp. “We’d like to do this to make those non-motorized facilities more robust. They’re used an awful lot.”

MDT has asked the city to commit $1.6 million to achieve its vision for a wider bridge. Roughly $530,000 would come from the city’s Transportation Impact Fees and $1.07 million from the Road District.

Members of the committee didn’t commit to the request on Wednesday, though they plan to continue the discussion in the weeks ahead. If the city agrees to commit the funding, it would be asked to provide the money 60 days prior to opening bids.

The project is currently slated for 2020, though it could advance to 2019.

“MDT claims it will replace the bridge in the condition it is,” said Slovarp. “If we want the extras, it would be up to us to fund it.”

The City Council will also be asked to provide $20,000 to a $60,000 study of Higgins Avenue between Broadway and Brooks Street, including improvements to bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

While a number of options are on the table, one of them would include reducing Higgins to one travel lane in each direction with a middle turn lane. The stretch of roadway currently provides four travel lanes.

“As far as the bridge goes – the actual deck – MDT and us have agreed it would best to build the bridge with the widening as proposed, so even if we do a study and it says we can convert this to three lanes, we’d have future flexibility down the road if we wanted to change it back,” said Jessica Morriss, the city’s transportation planning manager.

If the council decides it wants to reduce Higgins to two lanes, then the bridge would be striped accordingly, Morriss said. But the bridge should still be widened to preserve future options.

“It’s still beneficial to widen the bridge and, I believe, for the city to contribute 10 percent of the cost to have that infrastructure added if it’s desired to go back to four lanes in the future,” she said.

Most council members have yet to weigh in on the study and a potential lane reduction, though Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong voiced her opposition to any such move on Wednesday.

She also opposed any city funding to widen the bridge.

“The plan to narrow Higgins – I can’t support it,” she said. “Not in any way, shape or form. I’d like to see lanes shift on Higgins to create one much wider pathway instead of having two 12-foot paths and maintain all the lanes of traffic.”

The committee is expected to pick up on the conversation in the coming weeks.