Missoula city staffers identify 78 pressing transportation projects; present Top 10

The 78 projects identified on terms of safety, equity and connectivity ring in at around $125 million. The city currently has little more than $3 million a year to apply to such work meaning, as one City Council member noted, it would take 40 years to complete all the work. (Missoula Current file photo)

A month after announcing its plans to retool the way it approached locally funded transportation projects, the city on Wednesday unveiled a list of 78 pressing proposals and pared them down into a Top 10 list.

Add them up and the 78 projects identified on terms of safety, equity and connectivity ring in at around $125 million. The city currently has little more than $3 million a year to apply to such work meaning, as one City Council member noted, it would take 40 years to complete all the work.

“The entirety of the project list represents $125 million in investment, which shows how high the need is and how little there is to work with,” said Ben Weiss, the city’s bike and pedestrian coordinator. “Even the low scoring ones on the list are important projects and have been identified as having benefit and real need.”

Projects on the list range from reconfiguring Third Street to a bridge over the Clark Fork River to connect the University of Montana with Missoula College. Buffered bike lanes on West Broadway are included, along with a crosswalk on Russell Street near the fairgrounds.

But the top five projects include sweeping improvements to the Westside neighborhood and reconfiguring Higgins Avenue from Brooks to downtown. Changes to California Street to accommodate future affordable housing also scored in the top five, as did two proposed greenways to accommodate east-west bicycle traffic.

“It’s not everything that exists out there,” said Weiss. “We foresee adding projects to this list over time and having this be a new model that we bring forward. If priorities change or if new information comes, or if new projects are proposed, we add them to the list and continue scoring them.”

Saying the past approach to funding capital improvement projects wasn’t as transparent as it could be, the city last month unveiled a new method of reviewing transportation projects based on city priorities and deeper planning.

But funding the projects given current revenue remains a challenge. Jeremy Keene, director of Development Services, said the city gets around $1 million a year in gas taxes and another $1 million in transportation impact fees. It also directs around $400,000 a year from the road district into the CIP program.

“When you add all that up, it’s about $3 million we can spend this fiscal year,” Keene said. “Our challenge here is to take these projects and build a CIP out of that that funds the next year, and build a five-year plan around that and what we think we’ll have in revenue.”

Of the projects identified thus far, the Westside project scored the highest. It represents a combination of smaller projects that add up to big improvements including sidewalks, bike lanes on Spruce, safety enhancements at several locations, angled parking on Alder, and improved access to the Northside pedestrian bridge.

“It’s truly multi-model, accommodating and enhancing connectivity and safety for all users,” said Weiss. “It responds to significant development pressure in that neighborhood. With the hospital expansion, and assuming the development of The Drift still takes place, there’s increased parking pressure in this neighborhood and infill projects happening.”

Improvements to Higgins Avenue scored second on the list, though its appearance isn’t new. Efforts to improve Higgins from Brooks Street to Broadway have been around for years and could someday include a reduction in lanes to accommodate anything from a dedicated trolley to safer bike lanes.

Last week, a 20-year old woman was hit and nearly killed on Higgins by an SUV.

“The recent tragic crash highlights the need, but it’s one we know of and it has existed for a long time,” Weiss said. “There’s a great opportunity with the (Higgins) bridge rehab project about to begin, and the opportunity to leverage additional (MPO) funds. It’ll require a coalition of City Council, staff, neighborhoods, businesses and MDT to make it happen.”

Under Montana law, the Capital Improvement Program allows cities to set aside funds from certain sources to fund various projects. They are separate from state or federally funded transportation projects, such as recent work to Russell Street or the Higgins bridge rehab, which is set to begin this year.

Aaron Wilson, the city’s transportation coordinator, said the projects on the list may be completed in phases as funding becomes available. That could include a crosswalk here or a sidewalk there, bike lanes in certain locations or parking improvements.

“Other projects like Higgins, there’s a pressing need to do engineering and study it,” Wilson said. “It’s a way we can start looking at these and make sure we’re making progress on these high priority projects, even if we’re not going to start construction next year.”

The City Council will be asked to approve projects listed in the five-year CIP proposal, which should be presented this summer. It will include a final list of projects and their list of priority.