Missoula on tap for major transportation projects starting this fall

Traffic picks up on the corner of Front Street and Higgins Avenue in downtown Missoula, as seen from the roof of the Missoula Mercantile. (Photo by Martin Kidston)
Traffic picks up at Front Street and Higgins Avenue in downtown Missoula, as seen from the roof of the Mercantile. The Montana Department of Transportation will replace the district’s dated traffic signals this fall to improve coordination and traffic flow. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

The Montana Department of Transportation is preparing for a busy fall construction season as work to repair the Madison Avenue Bridge kicks off and contractors begin replacing and improving the traffic signals in downtown Missoula.

Work on the Orange Street roundabout is also approaching, and the state agency is moving to secure the right-of-way needed to expand Russell Street to four lanes and replace the corridor’s dated bridge.

“We’re just completing the final design and we’re right in the middle of the right-of-way phase for the Russel Street Bridge,” said Ed Toavs, MDT administrator for the Missoula District. “Our plan is to let the project in the first quarter of 2017. Right now, it’s subject to how the right-of-way negotiations go.”

Toavs placed the number of right-of-way acquisitions needed to begin the project at 30, with roughly half of them secured. Appraisal work on several parcels continues, as do negotiations with landowners.

The first phase of the project carries a price tag of roughly $32 million. Once finished, Russell Street will be widened from two lanes to four lanes from Dakota Street to West Broadway and include a new four-lane bridge.

“There’s a lot of back of forth on getting an accurate value for the right-of-way,” Toavs said. “This is the most expensive piece of the project by far because of the bridge.”

As MDT continues to acquire the right-of-way to widen Russell Street, it’s also gearing up to build a five-legged roundabout at Orange Street and Interstate 90. The $3 million contract was awarded in July to Knife River, which is planning a pre-construction conference this week.

Toavs said preliminary work could begin this fall, though the bulk of the work would likely take place next spring. The construction conference will set the project’s timeline.

“We gave the contractor a little flexibility,” said Toavs. “There’s parts of that project they could work on this fall. They’ll be able to put it back together before the winter shut down, or they may decide to hit it all at once starting in the spring.”

MDT also has awarded a $6.5 million contract to Frontier West and Morrison-Maierle to rehabilitate the Madison Avenue Bridge. Portions of the structure were closed to pedestrians in February after holes appeared in the sidewalk.

Toavs said contractors will wait until after the University of Montana football season to begin major construction, though work underneath the bridge could start in October. Once finished, the travel lanes will be slightly narrower, though the sidewalks will be widened from 4 feet to 6 feet.

“They’re not looking at shutting down any lanes, per se, until after the football season,” Toavs said. “But we’ll see that work of tearing off the old deck and putting on a new deck start this winter.”

When the bridgework does begin, Toavs said, half the bridge will remain open to travel while the other half is rehabilitated. Traffic will then switch sides. The project is expected to wrap up by the fall of 2017.

MDT also has awarded a $1 million contract Montana Lines, Inc., to upgrade the traffic signals in downtown Missoula, including Higgins Avenue and Broadway. The work will modernize the technology, allowing the signals to better coordinate with downtown traffic.

“This will be the fist step in two or three steps to have a more automated, coordinated system to do better with the traffic,” Toavs said. “Part of that project will time that signal at Broadway for left-hand turning.”

Toavs said the work will begin this fall. It will also include improvements to the sidewalks at Higgins and Broadway for ADA accessibility.

“We’re going to be busy this fall,” Toavs said. “And next year is going to be really busy if everything is ready to go. In the end, it will result in some significant improvements.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com