Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Plans to reshape the downtown transportation network and another geared toward Brooks Street remain on the horizon, and the city is pursuing them both with diligence.

The city last year landed a $25 million federal grant to fund the Downtown Safety, Accessibility and Mobility (SAM) project, and while it's waiting for the grant to be signed, it continues to work with what the Missoula Redevelopment Agency described as a broad working group.

“It's a broad representation from property owners to business owners, downtown residents, those who don't drive a car and can't, and folks who totally drive a car,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “Downtown did a good job at shaking the bushes and getting people to step up to get that broad spectrum.”

The SAM project includes a number of changes to the downtown district's transportation network. Among them, Front and Main streets will be converted back to two-way traffic. A feasibility study conducted in 2015 found that converting the two streets would create more parking and improve the flow of non-motorized travel. The study also suggested that local businesses would see an economic boost of around 13% from customer traffic.

Since then, other project elements have been added to the work, including a lane reduction on Higgins Avenue between Broadway and Brooks Street. The project was approved by the City Council last year.

As proposed, that project would reduce the number of driving lanes from four to two while adding a dedicated left-turn lane. It would also install new cycling facilities.

Other efforts under the SAM project include a wider Riverfront Trail, new gateways into Caras Park, and an ADA ramp on Beartracks Bridge. The working group will oversee all elements of the SAM project, and MRA wants the group to represent as many interests as possible.

In the meantime, the city is waiting for the federal government to sign the grant.

“The grant agreement isn't signed yet. We can't do a whole lot until it's signed,” said Buchanan.

The city also has plans to improve the Brooks Street corridor, including a center-running, bus rapid-transit system, or BRT. The city received an $850,000 grant in 2021 to determine the project's feasibility and early design.

A bus rapid transit system is planned along the Brooks Street corridor.
A bus rapid transit system is planned along the Brooks Street corridor.

The city's consultants at HDR determined that while the Brooks Street corridor is capable of moving traffic, it will soon reach capacity. It already faces a number of challenges that impairs traffic, limits economic expansion and hinders non-motorized transportation.

In seeking solutions, transportation officials settled upon a BRT that would use a center-running lane. That would enable Mountain Line to launch 15-minute service without disrupting traffic in the heart of Midtown.

City officials and representatives from the Montana Department of Transportation recently toured similar systems in other cities including Fort Collins, Portland, Eugene and Vancouver.

“We learned a lot and came back with ideas that we wouldn't have had if we hadn't made the trip,” said Annette Marchesseault with MRA. “Everyone's head was spinning with ideas. So we're tapping the brakes a little bit. We're not abandoning the center-running BRT. What we are doing is saying let's pull back just a hair and look at some of the other options.”

Marchesseault said some of the systems toured included a hybrid model, where the system blended a center-running lane and normal bus travel. If right-of-way is limited, it could be another option, she said.

“There may be some other options,” she said. “We're asking the consultants to add to the scope a little bit, keeping center running but looking at other potential hybrids. We're not talking more than a few months.”