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Feedback from Reserve Street forums could inform future transportation plans, slowly

When transportation planners asked Missoula residents what they thought about Reserve Street, the feedback ran from congested and unfriendly, to convenient with plenty of shopping variety.

Suggested improvements included better bicycle and pedestrian access, coordinated lights, a commuter rail and even a gondola. Roundabouts were suggested, along with beautification.

On Thursday, the Transportation Coordinating Committee took a look at the public process used to gather the feedback over the past year and how the information could enhance the city’s Long Range Transportation Plan moving forward.

“This would be information that would allow the Metropolitan Planning Organization in the future to look back on when they’re looking at the Long Range Transportation Plan, and other plans, to see what it was that people’s use and desires were, and their likes and dislikes,” said Rachel Gooen with Fifth House Consulting.

Reserve Street, just a two-lane highway on the outskirts of Missoula 30 years ago, now serves as a major federal highway and regional economic center. At current counts, it sees around 40,000 vehicle trips a day, and additional growth is coming to areas further west.

Funding costly infrastructure projects is always a challenge, but some improvements have made their way into the city’s transportation plan. Timing the traffic signals to improve the flow of traffic may be the first place to start, according to the city.

“Signal timing could, from an infrastructure side, be an option,” said Aaron Wilson, the city’s transportation planner. “It’s not going to solve all our problems because there are capacity issues, but it could help smooth out some of the issues we see on Reserve and think about how we’re managing the existing traffic demand.”

Other aspects, such as improved pedestrian crossings, could take more time, and investments in public transit will remain the preferred tool to reduce congestion.

While frustration is often the prevailing emotion among those who use the commercial corridor, changing the public’s perceptions of Reserve could also be key, planners suggested. As it stands, the highway plays a number of roles, and it does many things well.

“Sometimes we lose sight of that because we’re trying to fix problems and not necessarily thinking about the fact that Reserve Street is a regional corridor and is providing all these uses, whether it’s commuters, people traveling through on the highway, or being a major commercial center,” said Wilson.

“We talk about shifting the dialogue away from Reserve Street being the worst thing in Missoula to Reserve Street doing a lot of things relatively well, and there’s a lot of things we can do in our day-to-day lives to make it better.”

Issues with distracted drivers and road rage may top the list of personal actions that could make the corridor a more pleasant place to visit, planners said. Aesthetic improvements could also help.

Gooen recently spoke with a national transportation planner from the Center of Health, Safety and Culture, who suggested that the smaller things, such as beautification, can be among the easiest places to start and have big impacts.

When planners asked the public what it didn’t like about Reserve, the unkempt medians came up, along with sign clutter, industrial settings and other issues.

“Beautification is one of the things they (public) said they wanted,” said Gooen. “There’s a change that people have when they go to a place and it feels good. It’s easy to do but takes coordination.”

The city has its sites set on a number of corridors in Missoula, including Brooks Street, Higgins Avenue, and Front and Main streets in downtown Missoula. There’s not enough funding to go around without the aid of grants and other investments, and planning can take years, if not decades, to achieve.

But Wilson said the city, through long-range planning, can begin to tackle smaller projects piece by piece until larger changes are achieved.

“We included some of these ideas around the North Reserve and Scott Street area and infrastructure, and how we’re thinking of that when we look at how Reserve fits into that area and what improvements might be necessary,” Wilson said. “The public outreach on this gave us a lot of good background information we can, as an ongoing public involvement piece, integrate into our Long Range Transportation Plan.”