Efforts to pursue a federal grant to construct a transportation grid west of Reserve Street won the preliminary support of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday, with most members saying it was a good opportunity to get ahead of future growth.
The county, which is leading the effort, plans to submit the application for a $15 million BUILD grant next month. If approved, the grant would fund roughly half of the anticipated $30 million project.
“There’s been a fair amount of work at the county in the land use mapping exercises they’ve been doing for the urban area outside the city limits,” said Arron Wilson, a transportation planner with the city. “Some of that work is ongoing and those conversations have already started and there’s a fair amount of growth already going to this area.”
While the city’s resolution of support must still win approval of the full City Council, members of the Public Works Committee billed the effort as a prime opportunity to get a jump on the rapid growth gathering on the city’s western edge.
Projections for the area, which is loosely bounded by Reserve Street and the airport, and Mullan Road and West Broadway, call for nearly 3,000 units of housing and 7,000 new jobs over the next 20 years.
Now, project advocates agree, is the time to get ahead of what’s coming.
“We focus so much on downtown but we’ve now started to think a little differently, and now we’re moving ourselves out to Midtown,” said council member Heather Harp. “But this (Mullan) area in particular has been absent of more community-centric services, other than what you find on Reserve Street, and most would agree that’s not very walkable. We have an opportunity here to take advantage of a grant that may not be there next year.”
Efforts to connect the area with a proper grid system have been nearly two decades in the making, though it hasn’t advance very far. The county applied for a grant last year but wasn’t successful, though it’s now trying again and must submit its application by July 18.
The project looks to extend George Elmer Drive and Mary Jane Boulevard from Mullan Road north to West Broadway, creating two north-south connectors. It would also extend England Boulevard further west, opening access to the airport’s plans for light industrial development and future job creation.
Current traffic models suggest that such a network would take pressure off Reserve Street by opening other routes. It could cut congestion by 95,000 hours a year and reduce vehicle miles traveled by 3.6 million, the plan suggests.
“I think this is an opportunity to fix a lot of problems we have with a lack of grid network and a lack of connectivity on the west end of town,” said council member Jordan Hess. “It speaks to our housing needs as we open up areas for reasonable development. I’m a huge proponent of infill and this is greenfield development, but it gives us a chance to plan for that greenfield development on a scale and in a configuration we don’t normally have an opportunity to work with.”
While the city-county partnership to pursue the federal grant has won broad support among local officials, it hasn’t won the support of council member John DiBari, who voted against the resolution of support on Wednesday.
“We haven’t had any substantive discussions on service provision, infrastructure, changes in population, demographics, impact on schools,” DiBari said. “We’re laying the groundwork to build this without a discussion of what the impact actually is.”
Complicating the matter in DiBari’s eyes is the city’s plans to annex areas west of Reserve Street, including land around the airport. While the county has embarked on its own land use and planning efforts for the area, DiBari said the city has different expectations and goals.
“I appreciate the fact the county is going though a land use process and a lot of mapping, but their standards are totally different than the city’s,” he said. “If all of this area starts getting built out under county standards and the city winds up annexing it and we have a mismatch in quality of development, standards of curb, gutter and sidewalk, street widths and all kinds of stuff, that ends up costing people money on the back end.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Missoula County Commissioners appointed Greg Robertson, the county’s director of public works, as the grant’s primary local agent.