Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A proposed reduction in vehicle lanes and the addition of protected bike lanes on Higgins Avenue could reduce crashes by 50% while boosting business within the corridor, city officials told members of the City Council this week.

But it could also eliminate some parking and add an additional minute to a driver's commute at peak hours, transportation planners added.

After years of discussion and the release of a new Downtown Master Plan, transportation officials with the city this month said they'd settled upon a preferred concept to improve the safety and aesthetics of downtown's prized corridor.

“We've developed what we think is the recommended alternative given the goals we set out to achieve in the corridor. It's not a perfect fit for every user in they corridor,” said transportation manager Arron Wilson. “We're really limited with right-of-way and space to work with here. We have to make decisions on how we want to utilize that space.”

The preferred plan reduces four travel lanes to three from Fifth Street to Broadway, adds separated bike lanes and more definable bus stops. On the bridge section, it dedicates what formerly served as the outside travel lanes to bicycle lanes while the new and wider sidewalks would serve pedestrians.

While Wilson said the bridge was designed for four travel lanes, it has the capacity to serve a number of uses beyond automotive traffic alone.

“There are number of benefits of that bridge project, regardless of what happens to the travel lanes,” Wilson said. “We've built it with the capacity we think we need regardless of what mode we're providing that capacity to. That investment doesn't go to waste. I think it's a good way to utilize the space we have on this bridge to the modes we think we need to.”

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

The preferred design along the corridor also would allow for dedicated left-hand turns, something the current design doesn't permit. Wilson said it would improve safety for all users.

According to statistics presented to City Council, the corridor sees 55 crashes on average each year. That includes four bicycle crashes, one pedestrian crash and 12 injuries. Four narrow vehicle lanes would become two wider lanes, some driveways would be consolidated if businesses agree, and cyclists would be separated from traffic.

“People are getting injured in these crashes. People biking and walking account for 30% of all injuries,” Wilson said. “This is a particularly vulnerable group of roadway users along a corridor that sees some of our highest bike and pedestrian uses in Missoula.”

The preferred concept was included with several possibilities in the Downtown Master Plan, which envisions Higgins Avenue as a gateway to downtown. The vision for the corridor also includes what the plan described as a “postcard street” that's worthy of visiting, not unlike 16th Street in downtown Denver.

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

Development within the corridor is expected to increase as Missoula grows, including one visionary project on the site of the former Missoulian building. The city also has plans to convert Brooks Street to a bus rapid transit system – one that would tie into Higgins Avenue, allowing dedicated 15-minute service between south Missoula and the downtown district.

According to the city, 300 users have responded to a survey on the preferred concept. Of those, 53% definitely support the proposal while 25% are definitely opposed to it. Support among business owners on Higgins Avenue is less, with 38% in favor and 31% opposed.

But city transportation officials said past studies suggest that businesses would benefit from the conversion. That proved true on the north end of Higgins Avenue where a similar lane reduction has already been implemented.

“What we have seen in the last five or 10 years is very little vacancies in businesses on that (north) end of Higgins,” said transportation planner Ben Weiss. “The economic value of properties on that end of Higgins seems to suggests there was a net benefit of putting in protected bike lanes and putting in a four lane to three lane conversion there.”

Members of City Council will be asked at some point to approve the preferred concept, and the city would begin searching for funding to complete the work. While not all council members have weighed in on the plan, those that have have expressed early support.

“It was interesting seeing the construction on the bridge over the last couple of years. Having it be two lanes for a couple of years worked just fine,” said council member Gwen Jones. “There's a huge demand among people who want to bike or walk downtown, and now that it will feel safer and more inviting, I think the floodgates are about to open.”