Missoula, other cities concerned with MDT’s new right-of-way restrictions

Several Montana cities believe MDT’s policy changes will have “significant impact to the transportation system, including all modes of travel.” That includes a city’s ability to guide its own transportation future by planning for multiple modes of travel, and making pedestrian-scale improvements along state roadways, such as lighting and trees. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Missoula and several other cities have voiced concern over changes made by the Montana Department of Transportation to policies that limit what can occur in the right-of-way along state roads, saying the crackdown was adopted with no public input and will handcuff communities planning for growth.

The agency says the policies aren’t new and the updates were needed to address encroachments into the right-of-way that drive up maintenance costs. A meeting is set for next month between the agency and concerned city leaders.

In an October letter to MDT, the metropolitan planning organizations from Missoula, Billings and Great Falls voiced concern over two particular policy changes, including shared-use paths in the right-of-way and the agency’s management of the Highway State Special Revenue Account.

The cities believe the policy changes will have “significant impact to the transportation system, including all modes of travel.” That includes a city’s ability to guide its own transportation future by planning for multiple modes of travel, and making pedestrian-scale improvements along state roadways, such as lighting and trees.

“Every time we as a city want to do a project in the right-of-way, it has to be reviewed under this policy, and MDT has created a whole new review process where a committee has to convene to decide whether these changes in the right-of-way can occur,” said Jessica Morriss, the transportation planner in Missoula. “Some of the normal things we’ve been doing as a city, as well as in other communities, we’ve been told we can’t do.”

The issue has lingered since August when several cities and nonprofits, including Bike Walk Montana and Adventure Cycling Association, learned of MDT’s policy changes.

But it came to a head during a recent meeting of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency when its board of directors looked toward improvements along the Brooks Street corridor, including street trees and lighting associated with a $15 million bank project.

The corridor is state-owned and because of that, the city may not be able to carry out plans for pedestrian-scale improvements. The issue has emerged in other cities as well, including Great Falls, which was told by MDT that it couldn’t install a sidewalk within the right-of-way, where most sidewalks are located.

Non-motorized pathways within the right-of-way are also in doubt.

“The unfortunate outcome of these policies was that MDT didn’t create them in a public process,” Morriss said. “They say they’re internal operating policies, but they have far-reaching impacts across the state.”

When asked about the policy changes, MDT only said that a meeting is set for next month to explore the issue. But an October letter from MDT Director Mike Tooley suggested the changes were driven by the agency’s recent budget crisis, along with costs associated with maintaining encroachments in the right-of-way.

Tooley said the recent increase in fuel tax, passed by the 2017 Legislature, will provide MDT with the funding it needs through the Highway State Special Revenue Account to sustain its current level of operations.

The account is MDT’s primary revenue source in providing a non-federal match to conduct statewide maintenance activities. But while the fuel tax increase has padded the revenue account, Tooley said it’s not enough for the agency to take on additional projects or maintenance costs.

“It does not provide sufficient long-term funding for MDT to expand infrastructure or implement a more robust state-funded construction program,” he wrote in his letter.

Nearly all cities in Montana are bisected by a state-owned road. In Missoula, they include Higgins Avenue, Brooks Street and Reserve Street, among others. They represent major corridors that typically handle high volumes of traffic.

But they’re also eyed by local communities for the benefits that go beyond simple automotive traffic. While priorities differ from city to city, Missoula has been a national leader in its efforts to accommodate multiple modes of transportation and reshape the way development unfolds within its major corridors.

That effort seeks to transform certain corridors, such as Brooks Street, from a 1970s style of development that’s reliant upon the automobile to something of a neighborhood hub that’s more densely populated and easily navigated on foot or bike.

“The city of Missoula has a lot of goals and objectives related to the transportation network and how it relates to the built environment,” said Morriss. “There’s been a lot of time and effort by the city and this community to improve some of our corridors. But at this point in time, those visions might be held back.”

In a letter sent to the agency in August, Bike Walk Montana and Adventure Cycling Association, based in Missoula, called the changes “a huge step backward,” saying they were crafted with no public input or involvement.

They also believe the policies discriminate against those who don’t want to drive.

“I don’t disagree with MDT wanting consistency and making sure money is well spent,” Morriss said. “What concerns us is that there was no involvement outside the internal administration of MDT, no input and no discussion had with outside groups. As this plays out, we see it excluding needed facilities that aren’t just vehicle facilities.”