Cities across the state have expressed concern over an apparent policy shift within the Montana Department of Transportation that limits beautification efforts within the right of way.
The issue came to bear during a meeting of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s Board of Directors last week over improvements planned along the Brooks Street corridor, including street trees and pedestrian-scale lighting.
As it stands, the transportation agency may allow neither, a move that could have widespread implications for cities looking to beautify their urban centers and soften the impacts of major transportation corridors.
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of certainty right now whether this is strictly a maintenance issue or if goes beyond that,” said MRA director Ellen Buchanan. “If it is a maintenance issue, I’m confident we can find agreement with the state to take care of that. But if it really is a policy change that says no street trees, no pedestrian-scale lighting, then I think we have a problem.”
While the policy remains unclear, cities fear it could limit their ability to guide good urban design. A number of cities have expressed concern, prompting the Montana League of Cities and Towns to take up the issue in discussions with MDT.
A spokesperson for MDT on Friday couldn’t say that a change in policy had occurred, but only confirmed that a meeting was set to explore the issue next month with the League of Cities and Towns.
Kelly Lynch, deputy director of the League, said many communities are looking for guidance from MDT and recover some flexibility in their planning.
“We reached out to Director (Mike) Tooly and decided ultimately to start up a working group to discuss the changes and how they impact cites and towns,” Lynch said Friday. “At this point, we felt it was good to just talk it through with them (MDT) so we can have as much understanding and flexibility as possible.”
The issue surfaced on Wednesday as MRA set out to discuss a new bank project planned for the corner of Dore Lane and Brooks Street. The $15 million project gels with the city’s plans for the Brooks Street corridor, which calls for greater densities and mixed-used development, including housing and commercial.
But part of the plan also guides the corridor’s aesthetic design, one that strives to enhance non-motorized uses. Design plans are 90 percent finished and were crafted in partnership with MDT over the past several years.
The sudden change in the agency’s policy regarding trees, lighting and bus shelters, or anything else generally placed on sidewalks, has left the city somewhat confused.
“I believe this policy has grown out of the concern by MDT that they’re taking on additional maintenance costs and responsibilities when they allow anything to go in their right of way that’s not essential for vehicular traffic,” Buchanan said. “It definitely needs to be flushed out to understand all the ramifications, and that’s the effort the League is trying to broker.”