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Fifth, Sixth street lane reduction gets initial Missoula City Council approval

Vehicles sit at the intersection of Sixth and Orange streets in Missoula. The city has given initial approval to narrow Fifth and Sixth streets to a single lane of traffic. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

After years of study, surveys and discussion, members of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday approved changing a crosstown stretch of Fifth and Sixth streets to a single lane of traffic, saying it would go far in improving public safety while having little impact on traffic.

Before a condensed hearing with the Public Works Committee, Ben Weiss, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, said the changes would also slow speeds, expand bicycle connectivity and widen parking lanes.

“It’s been something we’ve been working on for quite some time,” he said. “The short is, Fifth and Sixth are operating significantly below capacity. They’re carrying about a quarter of the traffic that they could.”

Weiss said the Riverfront neighborhood first raised concerns about speeds and crashes in 2012. The Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation – a bicycle advocacy group – proposed the single-lane concept shortly after. The City Council approved funding to study the option in 2015.

That study was completed in 2016 and presented five different proposals. That year, the council selected a preferred alternative calling for a reduction from two lanes to one. The Montana Department of Transportation has approved the plan, though there’s currently no funding to carry it out.

“It’s a single-lane alternative that preserves turning lanes at each of the signalized intersections, even adding some turning lanes,” Weiss said. “The overall effect on vehicular traffic is minimal. Pending some slight modifications to the signal timing, it could even improve the service for Fifth and Sixth streets.”

Weiss said data found 279 crashes on Fifth and Sixth streets over eight years, amounting to one every 10 days. The so-called “double threat” to pedestrians trying to cross two lanes of traffic is also a concern, as are the speeds of vehicles.

“There’s a chance it could reduce vehicle speeds, which have been noted to be pretty high on these roads,” Weiss said. “With two lanes, you can pass someone if you want to go fast on those roads. The reason we think it might reduce speeds, if someone is driving the speed limit and there’s only one lane and if you’re behind that person, you can’t pass and speed.”

But the Missoula Chamber of Commerce has challenged the plan’s stated benefits, saying it would do little to reduce crashes or improve safety. Rather, the business lobby believes it would add to congestion and lengthen commute times for working Missoulians.

“Fifth and Sixth are important crosstown arterials,” said Clint Burson, the chamber’s director of government affairs. “Moving these to a single lane would likely increase congestion and increase the difficulty of workers to get to and from their place of employment.”

Cars sit parked along Fifth Street as traffic goes by. The city’s plan would stripe Fifth and Sixth streets to widen parking, add a buffered bike lane, and reduce two lanes of traffic to one. (Missoula Current file photo)

Burson cited Census data suggesting that 75 percent of Missoula residents commute to work by car, though other studies have placed that figure as high as 90 percent.

A survey of the chamber’s members, which represent a wide swath of the business community, found that 87 percent opposed the plan, and 96 percent of those who did believe the city should keep existing travel lanes on city arterials.

“The business community has been pretty clear to leave Fifth and Sixth streets as two-lane arterials,” Burson said. “These streets move from residential to commercial districts and allow commuters to get to and from their places of employment. They also serve as a means to move commercial goods across town in an efficient manner.”

Several neighborhood councils have supported the plan, including 80 percent of those surveyed in the Riverfront neighborhood. Advocates of the plan believe traffic would see little impact while public safety would be greatly improved.

“I’m happy to see this project moving forward,” said Bob Jaffe, a former member of the City Council and president of Cedar Mountain Software. “If the information that’s available now was available back when we first brought this up when I was on council, I think it would have moved forward. It’s quite compelling. There’s improvement to traffic flow and substantial improvements to public safety.”

While there’s no timeline on which the conversion would take place, Weiss said Fifth and Sixth streets are currently on the city’s radar for resurfacing. If funding became available and that project advanced sooner, Weiss said, the city wants a plan in place to begin restriping the roadway to a single lane.

Doing so would create wider parking lanes for area residents and create a buffered lane for bicyclists. Slight modifications to various intersections would take place, and traffic signals would be timed with the changes.

The reduction would occur on Fifth and Sixth streets between Higgins and Russel.

“I’m not in support of it,” said council member Jesse Ramos, who withheld further comment until Monday night’s City Council meeting.

Others supported the plan.

“We all understand we have issues trying to get east or west across our community,” said council member Heather Harp. “To learn the speed limits are 25 miles per hour, but there are reported speeds of 45, 55 and even 63 miles per hour, that’s absurd for a residential street. We have to put the safety of people first and foremost.”