Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Calling it a big piece of Missoula's transportation puzzle, members of the City Council on Wednesday placed their support behind plans to apply for a federal grant to reshape a number of streets and trails in the downtown district.

While the project isn't yet in final design, transportation officials placed the estimated cost of construction at around $23 million. The work will include turning Front and Main streets back into two-way traffic, reducing Higgins Avenue to two lanes but adding turn and bike lanes, and widening a number of downtown and riverside trails.

Arron Wilson, the city's transportation manager, said investing in the city's transportation network – starting in the city's core – can effectively connect the rest of Missoula and bring down the cost of housing.

“You have existing infrastructure there, but it may not be connected to the rest of Missoula, or you need those other transportation options where you're providing a more affordable transportation system for the housing we're going to see there,” Wilson said of the downtown district. “You're reducing the housing costs by providing more transportation options.”

List of priority projects

While the city has a long list of transportation needs, planners and most members of City Council see the downtown area as the center to which all other projects will lead. Those other projects are in various stages of planning, and some are further along than others.

Among them, plans to convert Highway 200 into a multi-modal street from downtown to Milltown has already been submitted for a design grant. If awarded, it would bring the project closer to being shovel ready.

Plans to finish widening Russell Street are also in place. Wilson described the corridor as a primary north-south route that will cost around $45 million to finish, with one end meeting what's expected to be a gateway to downtown district.

Brooks Street also is high on the list and is expected to compete for a design and engineering grant this spring. If awarded, it would also get the project shovel ready. Doing so will enable the city to apply for a construction grant once the window opens. That project will include a center-running bus lane that will connect Midtown to downtown.

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

Wilson said other projects include building out the transportation network on the Northside, where a number of affordable housing projects are in development. The city has already been awarded $9 million to turn South Avenue west of Reserve Street into a complete street with sidewalks and bike lanes.

“We're connecting all our multi-modal systems downtown. It's the core of Missoula. It's where a lot of these other priority projects end,” he said. “It's the lynch pin – that last puzzle piece that will connect all of these projects at the center of Missoula.”

Projects must meet grant requirements

While the city is working to address other transportation plans in other districts, the criteria of each federal grant plays large in which project the city submits for funding.

Wilson said South Avenue was listed as a street with a series of safety issues, making plans for the road a good fit for the $9 million Safe Streets for All grant the city received last year.

The downtown project will be submitted under a RAISE Grant, which leans heavily on projects that increase non-motorized transportation, increase equity and reduce carbon emissions.

“We have to be very quick and nimble in how we development grant projects,” Wilson said. “We also have to think about readiness.”

Mary Jane Boulevard now connects to Mullan Road thanks a federal grant received by the city to help address traffic on Reserve Street (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Mary Jane Boulevard now connects to Mullan Road thanks a federal grant received by the city to help address traffic on Reserve Street (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

While other areas of Missoula haven't seen as much local investment as the downtown area and parts of Reserve Street, including the Mullan BUILD project, city officials said they do have plans for other areas.

Council member Mike Nugent said he was glad to see those other projects on the list and encouraged planners to “get them shovel ready so when more grants pop up, we're ready to go.”

With the downtown work high on the radar, the Missoula Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday released a survey stating that the majority of is membership opposed plans for Higgins by a 77% to 23% margin.

If the downtown grant is to be successful, Nugent said, organizations across the city must rally as one, as they did when Missoula won a $13 million grant for the Mullan area.

“It should be all hands-on deck. Missoula is better served when we get federal money to do some of these big projects. It's important as a community to show that support,” Nugent said. “For everyone who comes and talks to us about budgets and property taxes, every opportunity we have to go and win federal money is helpful to that cause.”

While council members John Contos and Sandra Vasecka opposed the downtown grant application, council member Gwen Jones supported it.

“We're entering a new era in Missoula where we have demand with more people moving here, demand for more housing, and if we have a central core that works well, it's truly the foundation in the lynch pin for making everything else work well,” Jones said. “It positions us really well for the future.”