Transportation planners on Thursday took their concepts for a redesign of the Higgins Avenue corridor to members of the Transportation Policy Coordinating Committee for review as the city closes in on a preferred design.
Members of the committee voiced support for options that reduce vehicle lanes to make room for bicycle and possible transit facilities. They also questioned how a reduction in lanes would impact the new Beartracks Bridge, which is undergoing a multi-million renovation.
“We didn’t want to get too far into designing what happens on the bridge without knowing what we’re going to have on either side of it,” said city transportation planner Aaron Wilson. “We need to make sure we’re utilizing that space as effectively as possible.”
The city is midway through a process of designing plans to reshape Higgins Avenue from Broadway to Brooks Street. The stretch of road extends from downtown Missoula, across the Clark Fork River and into the Hip Strip area.
The road currently offers four vehicle lanes but has issues, transportation planners have said. Among them, left-hand turns are either difficult or restricted, parking is tight and other modes of travel, including bicycles, is dangerous.
Wilson said the three proposals for the project’s north end include maintaining the status quo or reducing four lanes to three with a dedicated center turn lane. That option would make room for raised bike lanes and have minimal impacts on parking.
Changes proposed south of the river to Brooks Street would also see a reduction in travel lanes with either raised or painted bike lanes. Another option would include a dedicated bus lane to match future plans for the Brooks Street corridor.
“None of these things are going to do everything as well as we want,” said Wilson. “There will be trade-offs no matter what alternative we chose.”
While making no changes at all is on the table, it’s unlikely to be selected as the city has eyed changes to the corridor for years. Changes would improve safety for all and boost business, planners have said. It would also enhance the corridor, making it the “post card” street called for in the Downtown Master Plan.
That could include a trolley, either fixed by rail or on wheels. Regardless, members of the transportation committee voiced support for the options that reduce vehicle lanes.
“It looks really good,” Corey Aldridge, the CEO and General Manager of Mountain Line, said of the options. “I like the concepts that reduce lanes. That’s just me.”
Until a design is selected, which is expected this summer or fall, Wilson said it’s difficult to determine how the new bridge will be utilized. The city pushed for a design that included wider bike and pedestrian facilities in order to maintain four vehicle lanes when the project was in the planning stage.
But if a lane reduction on Higgins is selected north and south of the river, the bridge would have ample space for other possibilities, Wilson said.
“We’ve been holding off because we didn’t want to get too hung up on what we’re doing with the bridge, but recognizing that space wouldn’t go to waste in any of these concepts,” Wilson said. “Maybe we get creative about a bus bypass-lane and using that space to let buses jump the cue at peak hours and make it more efficient as we’re trying to get 15-minute service.”
Wilson said traffic studies have suggested that the intersection of Front and Higgins can handle today’s traffic loads, which haven’t increased in decades. Among the concepts, that intersection would have a dedicated left turn lane timed with a light to make such turns easier.
But in another scenario that projects a modest increase in traffic, cuing at that intersection could take an additional minute to clear. Wilson said the open space on the bridge could be used for cuing, if not for busses then for cars.
“We could use some of that added space on the bridge for vehicle cuing to make sure we’re not impacting particular intersections,” Wilson said. “At that intersection, having that capacity on the bridge to think creatively about how we facilitate the vehicle load into downtown can be useful.”