Pedestrian needs, priorities emerging in Missoula transportation plan

Crews install sidewalks at a new intersection on Brooks Street earlier this year. Public infrastructure and ways to prioritize and fund it will be included in the recommendations of a new pedestrian master plan expected early next year. (Missoula Current)

The Metropolitan Planning Organization on Wednesday offered its first look into a months-long effort to determine the condition of the city’s pedestrian facilities, including sidewalks and other public infrastructure.

The results are expected to lead to recommendations on ways to create infrastructure where it’s lacking, prioritize needs and improve the overall connectivity of Missoula’s pedestrian network.

“The purpose of the plan is to establish a detailed strategy prioritizing funding and recommendations to provide a connected, safe and accessible pedestrian network in the urban area,” said Aaron Wilson, a planner with the MPO. “That might relate to funding, it might relate to policy, and it might related to other construction methods.”

The city launched its pedestrian survey in August to identify priorities in the Pedestrian Facilities Master Plan. Up to that point, sidewalks had emerged as a significant issue, begging questions among City Council members of social equality, city investment, and public health and safety.

Some neighborhoods, deemed as lower income, are peppered with missing sidewalks while others, including those in middle- and higher-income areas, have recently seen existing sidewalks replaced with new ones.

In the city’s three lowest-income neighborhoods, sidewalks are missing along 43 percent of the streets. Citywide, however, sidewalks are missing on just 22 percent of streets.

“What has been the priority for a long time was that because new sidewalks were so expensive, it would be irresponsible to impose them on low-income neighbors, so the emphasis was to replace sub-par sidewalks where they existed because it was a more achievable goal,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler.

“The result of that, over decades, is that we’ve had a disproportionate investment in nicer neighborhoods.”

By next spring, the update is expected to result in a number of recommendations to help the city determine where and how it invests in costly infrastructure needs. Whether that’s based on highest use, locations near parks and schools, low-income areas or other measures has not yet been determined.

“Those are all the different ways we can prioritize those or give different weights to each of those to come up with the highest priority locations to build sidewalks,” said Wilson. “There’s also a question of type, whether it’s ADA ramp replacements, failing sidewalks, crossings or safety improvements. We’re hoping all the data we have in the next process will help us come up with some community goals.”

As it stands, Wilson said, the city is missing roughly 300 miles of sidewalks. At the current rate of replacement of three to four miles a year, it would take nearly 100 years to finish the job.

The city may consider additional funding to speed the process, though doing so won’t come cheap and would likely detract from other needs. The city’s efforts are replacing an average of three miles of sidewalks each year at a cost of $1.2 million. In contrast, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency replaces roughly 1.7 miles a year at a cost of $575,000.

That has led planners to suggest that MRA is completing the task more efficiently than the city. The plan will explore the reasons behind it and suggest fixes moving forward.

At the urging of some council members, it may also take a look at alternative materials.

“The city of Los Angeles is doing something where they’re looking at new materials and suppliers,” said Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg. “I hope that we look a little outside the box. It seems like a variable that could help us.”