Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Calling it a welcome investment, the Missoula City Council on Monday night approved a $24 million federal grant agreement for several downtown transportation projects now years in the making.

But even with the details of the grant agreement now in place, construction isn't likely to start until 2026 with completion set for 2028.

“The Downtown Safety Access and Mobility project is something we've been working on for a couple of years,” said Jeremy Keene, the city's director of Public Works. “This is the next step in getting all the details worked out.”

The grant was submitted back in February 2023 and awarded that June. The agreement shores up the details around the project's financing and what's expected when the work is finished.

Keene said the project's beginning sought to achieve four primary goals including safer streets, an inviting streetscape to showcase the downtown district, to bolster the area's economic health and to improve circulation.

“We more or less have been able to keep on schedule,” said Keene. “In 2024 and 2025, we'll be working on the preliminary design and (environmental requirements). We're ultimately looking for construction in 2026 to 2028.”

Funding from the grant will enable the city to restore Front and Main streets back to two-way traffic between Van Buren Street to the east and Orange Street to the west.

It also will fund the conversion of Higgins Avenue from four lanes to three between Sixth Street to Broadway, including the newly opened Beartracks Bridge. Doing so will result in dedicated left-turn lanes and bicycle paths.

Improvements to the Caras Park gateway and wider trails along the Clark Fork River corridor are also included in the plan.

Plans for Higgins Avenue south of the Clark Fork River.
Plans for Higgins Avenue south of the Clark Fork River.

The plan's separate elements, collectively known as the Downtown Safety Access and Mobility project, have been planned for years, though the current vision for Higgins Avenue has been the most controversial. Approval of Monday night's grant agreement wasn't heard in committee, as per most council actions, but rather appeared on the agenda as new business.

Given the debate over some aspects of the project, council member Bob Campbell expressed concern over the council's quick action on approving the grant agreement between the city and the federal government.

The agreement passed on an 8-2 vote with Campbell and council member Sandra Vasecka in opposition.

“The optics of it look bad,” he said. “This is something that's not been without contention for quite some time. But I do appreciate we're up against a time constraint with federal requirements.”

Keene and Mayor Andrea Davis said the agreement came with a shortened deadline, forcing the city to act quickly on approving the grant. Monday's action was described as housekeeping, and city officials said the project will still enjoy ongoing public input.

“We need the contract in place to really start the public process,” said Davis. “But we would certainly have appreciated more of a time frame to bring this through the regular committee schedule.”