Missoula council gives official nod to widen Higgins bridge in $1.6M partnership

Members of the Missoula City Council voted Wednesday to commit up to $1.6 million to upgrade and widen the Higgins Avenue Bridge, a move that will give cyclists and pedestrians up to 13 feet of additional room on either side of the roadway, all while maintaining four lanes of traffic. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Members of the Missoula City Council voted Wednesday to commit up to $1.6 million to upgrade and widen the Higgins Avenue Bridge, a move that will give cyclists and pedestrians up to 13 feet of additional room on either side of the roadway, all while maintaining four lanes of traffic.

At the same hearing, however, members of the Public Works Committee mentioned – but did not take action – on a separate proposal that would see the city commit $40,000 to study whether four lanes were even needed, or if a three-lane configuration would better serve the corridor from Broadway to Brooks Street.

That discussion is expected to take place as the City Council enters the Fiscal Year 2018 budgeting process. Until then, members of the committee placed their unanimous support behind widening the bridge, regardless of what happens with the study.

“Whatever the recommendations of the study may be – whether a three-lane cross-section is possible – it’s our recommendation that the major rehab project continue as proposed in terms of having the bridge deck widened,” said Jessica Morriss, the city’s transportation planning manager. “It will provide that flexibility for the future.”

The existing bridge was constructed in 1962 and was recently determined by the Montana Department of Transportation to be both structurally deficient and functionally obsolete, though it continues to serve as a “minor urban arterial” into downtown Missoula.

According to Morriss, the annual daily vehicle count has averaged around 15,746 trips per day since 2010. That figure has decreased in recent years and stood at 14,039 average daily trips last year.

At the same time, Morriss said, the number of annual trips made by bicyclists and pedestrians has increased. While they accounted for 1,600 daily trips in 2010, their numbers now stand at more than 3,500.

“We’ve seen a modest decrease in the average number of vehicular trips across the bridge,” said Morriss. “On the non-motorized side, we’ve seen an increase. We have a pretty significant number of bicyclists and pedestrians that use the bridge. In total, it’s about 20 percent of the total trips that are occurring.”

MDT set out to study the city’s bridges in 2013 and evaluated a number of improvement options. For the Higgins span, those options included both minor and major rehabilitation work, and a complete bridge replacement.

In the end, the department and a coalition of city stakeholders agreed that a major rehabilitation was the best option on Higgins. In the process, the city lobbied for enhancements that went above and beyond what MDT had intended to do, bringing the project’s cost to around $11.6 million.

MDT agreed to move forward with the project, so long as the city covered the $1.6 million cost of making the bridge wider, and to install decorative lights and railing to enhance the structure’s appearance.

“The agreement says the city’s share would not exceed $1.6 million,” said City Engineer Kevin Slovarp. “If bids come in high, MDT will pay whatever is extra. If it’s lower, the city’s share would come down.”

Morriss said the project is slated for construction in 2020, though there’s a chance it could move into 2019 if MDT found the funding sooner. The city’s $1.6 million contribution would be due before the project goes to bid.

Slovarp said the funding will come from the city’s transportation impact fees.

“We project that by the time the bill may come due, which will probably be 2019, that we’ll have a fund balance in transportation impact fees to pay that all at once,” said Slovarp. “Development is paying into the fee to the tune of $750,000 or more every year. So we have a fund balance in there right now, and we show that we can manage that bill when it comes due.”

The full City Council will authorize the spending this Monday, though it will not yet decide whether to pay an additional $40,000 to study the lane configuration on Higgins between Broadway and Brooks Street.

If the study were approved, it would examine peak hours of transportation, safety of all transportation modes, and evaluate options for improvement. Those options could include keeping the corridor as is, or reducing it to three lanes to make more room for bicyclists.

Morriss noted that Higgins Avenue north of Broadway was once a four-lane section. It has since been cut to three lanes. Advocates of the reduction, including the National Association of City Transportation Officials, suggest that the configuration has worked well.

The Riverfront Neighborhood Council is also lobbying for a three-lane reduction. The study was also suggested in the 2009 Downtown Master Plan, Morriss said.

“There is a history,” she said.

While the council has yet to take action on funding the study, at least two council members have expressed opposition, including Ward 6 council member Michelle Cares and Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong.

Others have yet to weigh in.

“I think it’s important to underscore that the bridge construction will occur regardless of the study and outcomes from that study,” said Ward 2 council member Jordan Hess. “It will occur in a way that facilitates future options for Higgins.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com