Efforts to design the conversion of Front and Main streets back to two-way traffic in the downtown district will move forward after the Missoula Redevelopment Agency this week agreed to fund the cost.

The $450,000 design and engineering contract, awarded to HDR, will get the project shovel ready in the event that federal funding comes available to cover the estimated $4.5 million conversion.

With an infrastructure bill looming in Washington, D.C., downtown advocates believe now is the time to have plans in place and a design ready.

“When it's shovel ready, you go to the front of the line and start competing very well with other projects,” said Chris Behan, assistant MRA director. “We hope this design will be in line to go right up there.”

Front and Main were initially built as two-way streets but converted to one-way traffic in the 1950s. The practice was popular in American cities at the time, believing it would move traffic out of the city faster.

Design proposal for reconfigured intersection at Main and Orange streets.
Design proposal for reconfigured intersection at Main and Orange streets.

That's now dated thinking and converting the streets back to their original format is high on the list of goals identified in the last two downtown master plans.

“This continues to be the number one priority for the Downtown Master Plan Implementation Committee,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “From our perspective, this is money well spent.”

A feasibility study funded by MRA in 2015 found that converting the two streets back into two-way traffic would create more parking and improve the flow of non-motorized travel.

That same study also suggested that local retailers and restaurants would see an economic boost of around 10% to 13% from customer traffic. It remains a strong incentive for the conversion.

“That's significant for some of those small, locally owned businesses,” said MRA board member Ruth Reineking. “I would imagine that's changed by the new developments that have gone in.”

Since the feasibility study was completed in 2015, areas along Front and Main street have enjoyed millions of dollars in private and public investment. It includes two new hotels, a new brewery, several hundred units of student housing, a new public library and other improvements.

A number of other projects also remain in the works to the west near the Riverfront Triangle, effectively extending the downtown district along the Front and Main street corridors. Along with the design process, Mountain Line would review its bus stops and enhanced bike paths would be explored.

“Mountain Line has quite a few stops in there because of the residential component, and MCT does have a draw,” Behan said. “It would also look at protected bike lanes on Front or Main. Main Street makes more sense because the right of way is much wider that Front.”

Proposed design changes to the intersections at Madison, Main and Front.
Proposed design changes to the intersections at Madison, Main and Front.

The feasibility study also found that major intersection impacted by a conversation would not be negatively effected. The intersections at Orange Street, Madison and Higgins Avenue represent the project's largest design challenges, according to the study.

But the conversation was found to be feasible and the results would improve traffic circulation in general. Getting the project designed and ready to go is needed before the search for funding begins.

“We need these engineering drawings at some point. We need to understand what the cost is,” Buchanan said. “We can't get the money put together to get this done with federal assistance until we have a lot of questions answered and we know what we want to build and what it will cost.”

While the project is top of mind for downtown advocates, the $4.5 million cost has made the conversion unattainable without federal assistance. The cost was projected in 2015 and has likely increased over the past six years.

Buchanan said the design will help pin down current cost estimates and take a wider view of the district, including potential alterations to Higgins Avenue between Brooks Street and Broadway. The new Higgins Avenue bridge is slated for completion this fall.

“It's not a project that's going to be easy to fund,” Buchanan said. “To position ourselves to take advantage of any unexpected funding that may come about because the new presidential administration and infrastructure bill is money well spent.”