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City Council may narrow 5th and 6th streets to single lane

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A group of kids make their way down 5th Street in chilly temperatures on Tuesday. The City Council is considering an option to reduce two lanes of one-way traffic on 5th and 6th streets to a single lane, a move advocates believe would improve safety. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

Over the coming weeks, the Missoula City Council will consider reducing 5th and 6th streets to a single lane of traffic, a move proponents believe will slow speeds, reduce crashes and accommodate bicyclists without impacting vehicle flow.

Faced with opposition to the recommendation, however, the council may also consider making no change at all, as the streets are currently running below capacity and are now being eyed for a two-way conversion at some point in the future.

A decision is expected later this month.

“We’re not asking you to select an alternative that’s going to get built,” said Ben Weiss, manager of the city’s bicycle-pedestrian program. “We’re asking you to select one of the options for the consultant to finish their contract by giving us a better design and a more detailed cost estimate.”

Weiss said members of the Riverfront Neighborhood have expressed concerns regarding vehicle speeds, parking, a lack of bicycle facilities and pedestrian safety, though opponents have called the study into question.

Authorized by the previous City Council, the study measured traffic at two locations over a multi-day period and found that volumes on 5th Street near the Bitterroot Branch rail line had declined from 4,000 vehicles a day to below 3,000. Traffic at the same location on 6th Street had also dropped to less than 2,000 cars a day.

Closer to Higgins Avenue, traffic on 5th Street had increased to roughly 5,000 cars a day, while traffic on 6th Street had fallen from 4,000 to 3,500 daily vehicles.

“We have 20 years or more of traffic count data,” said Weiss. “Fifth and 6th streets have been static going back to the 1990s. The streets are operating at between a quarter and 40 percent of their capacity. There’s access capacity in those roadways.”

The study also resulted in a number of recommendations to address neighborhood concerns. The options include reducing the two-lane, one-way streets into a single lane of traffic. They also include various intersection configurations and parking options.

As recommended by advocates, the preferred alternative includes a single-lane option that maintains much of the parking on both sides of the streets. It eliminates one lane of traffic and gives it use as a buffered bicycle lane.

“It removes the double threat, expands bicycle capacity by providing a bike lane in the eastbound direction, and it widens the parking lanes, addressing neighborhood concerns about parking being too narrow there,” Weiss said. “It may also reduce vehicle speeds, because with only one lane, the slowest driver sets the pace.”

But the options included in the study also recommend making no changes at all, an option Weiss said was supported by 50 percent of the neighborhood based upon a non-scientific city survey. The “do-nothing” option was also supported by several council members and neighborhood residents, who questioned the need to make any changes.

“My big concern is that we’re restricting traffic flow and we’re going to decrease the level of service by doing so,” said Shawn Olson, a resident who lives on 5th Street. “If we funnel traffic to a single lane in one direction, where are the other cars going to go? If we go with the preferred option, I’ll have three lanes of traffic idling in front of my house.”

Olson, along with other opponents, believes the option to limit traffic to a single lane punishes 98.5 percent of the people who commute by vehicle while catering to 1.5 percent who move by bicycle. Other opponents suggested the study was flawed, saying it over-emphasizes the safety risks of two-lane traffic moving in a single direction.

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Opponents of the conversion say the “road diet” will worsen traffic and lengthen the time cars wait at intersections. These vehicles are waiting for the light at 5th and Orange streets. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Craig Holtet, owner of the Orange Street Food Farm and Missoula Fresh Market, said the study and those pushing it have not reached out to area businesses. Rather, they’ve suggested that a reduction to a single lane would have no impact on business.

“We have a reputation in this town of not being friendly to businesses, and this type of action is not friendly to business,” said Holtet. “The Broadway ‘road diet’ – we lost $28,000 a week in business out of that grocery store and we’ve never gotten it back because of the shifting traffic patterns. They went different places and they didn’t come back to those areas.”

Yet Bob Giordano, director of Free Cycles and the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation, said the project is unanimously supported by the Riverfront Neighborhood Council, the Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Board, and the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation.

He believes reducing two lanes to one will benefit businesses and safeguard residents.

“To say there’s only a small segment of bike riders doesn’t tell the whole story because a lot of people avoid these roads,” he said. “Getting rid of the pedestrian double threat, putting in a buffered bike lane, good turn lane design and a good transit street, this seems like it can have it all.”

Even if the city were to select the option calling for a lane reduction, there’s currently no set timeline for the project to take place. Neither street is on the city’s construction schedule, though that could change next year.

“Just because the study is done doesn’t mean 5th and 6th will be scheduled any sooner,” he said. “This study being done only helps us make a decision when that time comes. It doesn’t dictate when that time will come.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com