Economic growth: Vision for Brooks Street includes rapid transit bus lane

While traffic models suggest the Brooks Street corridor will reach capacity within the next 20 years, the city and a group of community partners believe they’ve found a remedy for future congestion.

It revolves around transit-oriented development and the implementation of a center-running, rapid transit bus lane – a tool that’s already been implemented in other cities but would be new to Montana.

“Brooks is a tough street,” said Annette Marchesseault with the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “It’s an issue a lot of cities are struggling with across the country – how to urbanize their suburban streets. Brooks is even more complicated because of its geometry.”

Anticipating future growth and its associated congestion, the city and the Midtown Association, along with other partners, began looking for ways to transform the Brooks Street corridor in 2015 with an eye on the future.

Among other things, the goal sought to make it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to use the street and reach vital services. It also looked to guide future development in a style better suited for public transit.

New Mobility West awarded the city a grant in 2017 to help the visioning process forward. The resulting document suggested ways to transform the district – a relic of the 1970s and its dated development patterns – into a vibrant, urban hub.

It included housing and commercial services, walkable neighborhoods and public transit.

With a guiding document in place, the city engaged HDR Engineering to move toward a workable plan. Once finished, it could enable the city to chase down federal funding.

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s Board of Directors on Thursday voted to extend HDR’s contract to finish the plan.

“The vision that’s been established is transit-oriented development and how to make that happen,” said Marchesseault. “HDR is very astute at understanding what the issues are. They’re a national firm that brings experience from other communities they’ve worked with on transit in different types of configurations.”

While remedies for Brooks Street have been challenging, HDR and other project advocates settled upon a vision for a center-running bus lane. The dedicated lane would enable Mountain Line to launch 15-minute service without disrupting traffic through the heart of Midtown.

“The vision that appeared was for a center-running, rapid transit bus system that would have bus stops at strategic locations that roughly correspond to the nodes established in the New Mobility West study,” Marchesseault said. “There’s a lot of synergy right now with all the development that’s happening in Midtown on its own.”

As proposed, the project would maintain two lanes of traffic in each direction. The center lane would be dedicated to rapid transit. But other challenges linger, and the city and its partners plan to conduct a feasibility study next year based on HDR’s recommendations.

“We’ve got a vision and the study is within six weeks of being complete and ready to roll out,” Marchesseault said. “Now we need to take that vision and test it with a feasibility study. There’s a real desire to get a vision for what’s happening on Brooks.”

As the project reaches the feasibility level, engineers will look at impacts to the right-of-way and what, if any, streets would be closed to improve the flow of traffic. Certain properties could also be aggregated to aid in future development.

The Montana Department of Transportation, which owns the street, would be courted as a partner.

“The strategy was to spur transit-oriented economic development,” said Ruth Reineking, an MRA board member and an active member of the Midtown Association. “Fifteen-minute transit service and permanent bus stops was identified as the best way to achieve that.

“Midtown MOJO is enthusiastic about this, and the Midtown Association really has grown a lot, and they have more members and are very much in support of this.”

Over the summer, Missoula County, in partnership with the city, secured a $13 million federal BUILD grant to make improvements to the traffic grid west of Reserve Street. Details of that project remain in the works.

Once HDR finalizes the plan for the Brooks Street corridor, the city could use it to look for federal funding to complete the work. The district encompasses much of south Missoula and is home to 16,000 people and 7,500 households. Roughly 2,000 businesses occupy the area, employing 17,000 workers

“This is a really ambitious project and it’s not something we can do strictly with local resources,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “Whatever comes out of this has to be the foundational piece to go after another major federal grant, and that’s all based on economic development.”