Inviting a crowd of people to fill a room to review charts and graphs may be off the table for now, but city and county transportation officials believe they’ve found a solution as they continue drafting the Mullan Area Master Plan.
The planning process kicked off on Monday with a virtual charrette scheduled to run all week. With social distancing in place to stem the spread of COVID-19, the Mullan planning process will include virtual presentations and stakeholder meetings, at least for now.
“We’re rapidly changing the way we do business with the BUILD grant,” said Jeremy Keene, the city’s director of Public Works. “The consultant has done a tremendous job building a website to do this. It’s an interesting paradigm, and we may find we reach more people through this format.”
Missoula County last year received a $13 million federal BUILD grant to begin infrastructure work between Mullan Road and West Broadway – all west of Reserve Street. The grant is time sensitive and must be delivered by a set date.
While the funding was well received, it was much less than the initial $23 million ask. The difference in funding will require city and county officials to identify top priorities while setting other portions of the project off for a future date.
“We have to retool the project a little to decide what we build with that $13 million,” said Keene. “There’s 10 project elements that were part of the original grant request, including five road elements, four trail pieces and the restoration of Grant Creek.”
To decide what stays and what waits, the BUILD team will score projects on a number of issues, including safety, traffic congestion, access to land for economic development, transportation choices and environmental review.
They’ll also consider a number of prerequisites, including public benefit and a project’s shovel readiness. That could include projects capable of being built from beginning to end, environmental hurdles and the current availability of right of way.
“After we’ve scored these and have a ranked list of projects, we’ll want to do some evaluation around which of these project segments work best together in construction, and how to ensure we spend all $13 million,” said Keene. “We’re well aware, with this crisis, that having $13 million of federal money ready to spend in our community as we come out of it is an important thing. We want to make sure we don’t lose any time in this process.”
The design charrette offers the public many of the same functions as a traditional open house. Participants can review city and county planning documents, chat with experts, and review the plans and successes employed in other growing communities.
In person workshops will take place latter this summer, city officials said.
“They will be able to attend live, in person meetings this summer, once we get the health emergency behind us,” said city planner Tom Zavitz. “We really intend to hold the public meetings again, so this isnlt the only time people will have a chance to give input. They’ll have a chance to do that once this emergency passes.”
The planning region has been identified by both the city and county as an ideal place to accommodate growth, but getting it right from the beginning and building the required infrastructure will be key to success.
Keene said a list of project elements ready to move forward should be presented to city and county officials by the middle of May. Those projects that don’t make the initial list will be revisited in the coming years as funding becomes available.
“We’re still $10 million short – we haven’t forgotten about that and want to build the whole project,” said Keene. “We’re looking at opportunities to apply for another BUILD grant. We think there could be stimulus opportunities coming out of this crisis. We’re just pushing the timeline out a little further to finish all those project elements.”