Missoula City Council OKs one-lane configuration for 5th, 6th streets

In this rendering of South Fifth Street, walking becomes more pleasant and safe, the street gains a buffered bike lane, driving flow and safety improves, and transit accessibility increases.

Saying the neighborhood’s safety outweighs all other concerns, Missoula City Council members voted 9-2 Monday night to reduce South Fifth and Sixth streets from two lanes to one between Higgins and Russell.

The two dissenting votes came from councilors Michelle Cares and Jesse Ramos. Councilwoman Stacie Anderson was absent.

The decision came after more than three years of studies, neighborhood surveys and committee meetings. It’ll be another year before the streets are resurfaced and repainted.

But the change is needed, a dozen neighborhood residents said during Monday’s public hearing, citing rampant speeding on the one-way streets, frequent vehicle crashes (one every 10 days) and the danger to pedestrians who attempt to cross either street.

Four different neighborhood councils have endorsed the one-lane configuration.

“The biggest part of our city budget is fire and police. That’s because our citizens are asking for safety,” said Councilwoman Julie Armstrong. “If we are not going to listen to what the neighborhood wants, there’s no reason for us to have this job.”

To the handful of citizens who protested the decision, Armstrong said: “10 blocks, paint: That’s all we are talking about. This is not monumental.”

If the one-lane, one-way streets don’t improve public safety, then they can be changed, added council president Bryan Von Lossberg. The roadway’s width is not changing, just the way the stripes are painted designating lanes.

Councilwoman Gwen Jones said a number of email comments received in recent days chastised the council for paying too much attention to bicycle lanes – which would be better accommodated on the new one-lane streets.

“But bicycle safety is an incredibly secondary issue here,” Jones said. “This is a residential neighborhood. We have a basic safety issue.”

Residents of the neighborhood testified Monday night that they’re afraid to cross Fifth or Sixth streets – and they fear for others who must cross the thoroughfares. They told of crawling across their cars to get out on the curb side of the street, so dangerous is the proposition of opening a car door on the traffic side.

A Willard Alternative High School teacher said she and her colleagues worry every day about their students, who must cross Sixth Street.

Residents and council members alike emphasized the “double threat” to pedestrians crossing the current two-lane, one-way streets.

When a driver in one lane stops for a pedestrian waiting to cross, there’s no guarantee a car won’t speed past in the second lane – not seeing the pedestrian until it’s too late to stop.

The driver cannot see the pedestrian, and the pedestrian cannot see the car.

“This plan will likely reduce speeds, reduce rear-end crashes, and increase the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists,” said Councilman Jordan Hess, chair of the Public Works Committee.

Studies have proved that reducing the number of lanes on a roadway results in a reduction in crashes of 19 percent to 35 percent, he said.

At the same time, there will be no impact on the flow of vehicles on Fifth and Sixth, Hess said. The new configuration will actually add turning lanes at intersections, cutting the wait to turn.

A study commissioned by the city predicted a 20-second increase in time needed to travel between Higgins and Russell on the new one-lane one-ways.

And the safety of residents will always win out over a 20-second delay, said Councilwoman Heather Harp. “We have to believe the science and the engineering.”

“We can’t just think about moving cars from east to west,” said Councilwoman Mirtha Becerra. “This is a neighborhood.”

In fact, it’s a great neighborhood, said Carol Bellin, who has lived on South Fifth Street West for 16 years, raising her son who is now a University of Montana student.

There are 12 homes in her block, she said. “We all know each other. We shovel each other’s sidewalk. We take care of the cat when neighbors go on vacation. It’s a real neighborhood.”

“Despite the fact that the cars whiz by, it is such a wonderful neighborhood that I wouldn’t trade it.”

Reducing the lanes to one will make the neighborhood livable, Bellin said. “This will be such a benefit to future homeowners. It will make this a much safer neighborhood for us.”

The naysayers Monday wondered whether there would be any real safety improvements, and worried about the potential traffic jams caused by a single lane of traffic.

Councilman Ramos said he was reluctantly voting “no,” but he couldn’t help but think the City Council was about to create problems like those that exist on Reserve and Russell streets.

If drivers are ignoring the 25 mph speed limit, then Missoula police should be ticketing them, he said. If the “double threat” is a significant concern, then the city should reach out to the schools and help educate students about the danger.

Councilwoman Cares said she could support the single-lane concept for Sixth Street, but not for Fifth. South Sixth Street West is considerably narrower – by 10 feet – than Fifth.

“Ultimately, the best solution is probably two-way traffic on Fifth and Sixth streets,” said Councilman John DiBari. “But we’re not there yet.”

“This proposal improves the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicles,” he said. “And the decrease in the level of service is 20 seconds of wait time.”

DiBari reminded the audience that the City Council’s direction to city staff is to make the change the next time Fifth and Sixth streets are resurfaced – and to put Fifth and Sixth at the top of the to-do list. Even then, he said, it could be a year or more before anything happens.