As projects languish, Missoula still working to resolve MDT right-of-way policies

The Montana Department of Transportation said its policies aren’t new and the updates are needed to address encroachments into the right-of-way that drive up maintenance costs. The city is working for a solution. (Missoula Current photo)

Changes made by the Montana Department of Transportation to policies that limit use of the right-of-way on state roads has a number of cities across the state concerned, including Missoula.

Because of the changes and the case-by-case review needed to move a project forward, several public improvements scheduled to coincide with new construction in Missoula are on hold.

Those include completion of the landscaping along Russell Street outside the new Les Schwab Tire Center, along with work coinciding with the newly opened Mary Avenue.

The boulevards on West Broadway and Orange Street outside the new Stockman Bank building in downtown Missoula are also on hold. The building opened in December.

“They need to get their landscaping in,” said Ellen Buchanan, executive director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “Right now it’s a trip hazard.”

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.

The agency said the policies aren’t new and the updates were needed to address encroachments into the right-of-way that drive up maintenance costs.

Despite the changes, Buchanan said, Missoula is working with the agency to address the issues.

“I think we have everything ironed out, and that’s going to become the template,” she said. “I think what we’ll have is a master agreement the city will have with MDT so we don’t have to go through this on every project, but right now, it’s a site-specific review.”