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Missoula County approves East Missoula corridor plan; search for funding begins

The vision to reshape the Highway 200 corridor from Van Buren Street to Tamarack Road carries an estimated cost of $26 million, but county officials believe options are available.

After years of visioning and months of work, Missoula County on Thursday placed its support behind a final draft of the East Missoula corridor plan, one that looks to reshape the strip of asphalt into something that more closely resembles a community Main Street.

But the vision to reshape the Highway 200 corridor from Van Buren Street to Tamarack Road carries an estimated cost of $26 million, and that could take time to fund.

Still, county officials are pleased with their chances – and with the plan itself.

“This has been a long time in the making,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “There’s serious deficiencies in the Highway 200 corridor transportation infrastructure. This is charting a path forward.”

Some of the plan’s highest priorities carry the highest costs, including the East Missoula streetscape project, which rings in at around $7 million. That project includes newly aligned intersections, raised cycle tracks, a center turn lane and six-foot sidewalks on both sides.

Other project elements include on-street bike lanes along Highway 200 from the Van Buren intersection to the railroad bridge. Improved parking and access to the Sha Ron recreation site is also included.

While funding could take time, county transportation planner Johnathan Sand said there’s a number of options.

“With the new infrastructure bill being proposed, there’s a lot of potential there,” he said. “A lot of the elements in this project are eligible for grant funding. There’s a lot opportunists out there for the trail connections to be funded with grants. We’re really looking to explore those opportunities.”

The local option gas tax passed by Missoula voters had been viewed as one potential tool the county could use to put up matching funds to attract federal dollars.

But the Legislature passed and Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill revoking the tool. The county will explore other means to capture the revenue needed to complete the corridor.

“There’s a plan, there’s a vision, there’s high-level cost estimates in there,” said Sand. “We have a better understanding what the project entails.”

The project’s most expensive element includes widening the Montana Rail Link bridge on Highway 200, which carries an estimated cost of $10.8 million.

The existing structure is narrow and allows just enough room for two passing vehicles. Other high-cost items in the plan will also search for federal funds.

“Bigger projects like the Montana Rail Link underpass, identifying funding for that will take some partners and working closely with Rail Link on that to achieve the vision in the plan,” said Sand. “Stimulus money is going to be coming down the pipe. We’ll look into that as well.”

Strohmaier said the county will discuss the plan and needed funding with its federal lobbyists as an infrastructure bill remains in discussion in Congress.