City of Missoula, MDT join forces to hasten Russell Street corridor’s widening

A Missoula transportation committee on Thursday adopted a resolution intended to accelerate the completion of the Russell Street corridor through a funding agreement between the city and the state.

The agreement would see the Montana Department of Transportation bring more National Highway System funds to the table, thereby reducing the amount of urban funds needed by the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The entire project, stretching from West Broadway to Mount Avenue, carries an estimated cost of $47 million.

“The next phase is currently programmed to be funded solely with urban funds,” said Aaron Wilson, the city’s transportation planning manager. “We get $1.8 million to $1.9 million a year in urban funds. At $2 million a year, that’s maybe 20 years to fund this project.”

Looking to expedite the project’s completion to Mount Avenue, the resolution would see MDT allocate as much as $31 million in National Highway funding.

That would accelerate the project and reduce MPO’s contribution to roughly $16 million. While doing so would commit MPO’s urban funds through around 2030, that’s sooner than 2040 without the agreement.

The Transportation Technical Advisory Committee approved the resolution with some questions on Wednesday. The Transportation Policy Coordinating Committee will take it up next.

“It’s better for Missoula to get $31 million to complete this project rather than no dollars,” Wilson said.

Work is underway to complete the first five-lane section of Russell Street. (Missoula Current file photo)

Members of the committee agreed, though one issue lingered. If the city or county were to secure a federal grant to help fund the project, or if the project came in under cost, it would lessen MDT’s contribution, not that of the MPO.

That removes the local incentive to apply for grants and look for other funding sources.

“There’s no motivation for the community to apply for a BUILD grant,” said committee member Shane Stack. “The way this is structured, there’s no motivation for the city or county to do anything. I don’t understand why we wouldn’t go for a win-win.”

If the resolution is ultimately adopted, including the recommendations passed on Wednesday, MDT will continue its plans to convert Russell to a five-lane corridor from Third to Mount. Similar work is already underway from Dakota to Broadway.

Construction of the southern segment is slated for 2024, while the Broadway intersection would be completed in 2025. That timeline is subject to change.

But not everyone supports the project, including self-described activist John Wolverton, a member of the Missoula Advocates for Sustainable Transportation. He suggested the city and MDT scrap the project and apply the funds to maintain its current infrastructure.

“The next 30 years won’t look anything like the last 30 years,” he said. “The era of road building is closing. We can’t take care of the roads and infrastructure we already have. This time should be devoted to taking care of infrastructure we already have.”

Members of the committee noted the project’s public input and expressed support for the improvements. The project has been decades in the making but went unfunded until recently.

“I’m appreciative of MDT’s willingness to bring a lot of money to table to get this done,” said committee member Ben Weiss. “I want us all to realize we’re using 30 years of our local federal money and MDT is infusing a ton of money into this project. Hopefully we won’t have the same issue come up in the future and we’ll solve our transportation issues in a different way.”