A key easement needed to bring the Milwaukee Trail west to Mullan Road was approved this week, setting the stage for other projects that will set the extension into motion.

Missoula County commissioners approved spending $25,000 from the 2006 Open Space Bond to acquire the easement across the Schmidt Road property, located just south of Mullan Road.

The Milwaukee Trail would follow the property to Mullan Road, where the trail would continue west at some point in the future.

“This trail would provide a critical connection between the Milwaukee Trail and Mullan Road,” said Grant Carlton, the city's open space program manager. “It connects to the highway and extends the Milwaukee Trial by half a mile.”

The Milwaukee Trail serves as a vital piece of non-motorized transportation, crossing the city from east to west along the old railroad bed. The recent Russell Street project placed a portion of the trail under the roadway.

Currently, the trail stops at Grove Street just west of Reserve. From there, it will need to cross the Clark Fork River, along with several other private easements before it reaches the Schmidt Road parcel. While the bridge doesn't yet exists and other improvements are needed, Carlton said the easement is available and should be secured.

“We have a willing and capable land owner,” he said. “The Mullan area is expected to experience exponential growth in the coming years, and there's an extensive planning effort under way. We're going to see increased property values, property changing hands, and these kinds of projects are going to become more difficult to come by.”

The $13 million federal grant secured by the county will help fund significant transportation and infrastructure projects in the Mullan area. A portion of that will include trails, and the Milwaukee Trail will serve as something of a bicycle highway to bring commuters to other parts of the city.

The Bitterroot Trail and Milwaukee Trail represent the city's two key trail corridors.

“It's one more connection to the river corridor and into the urban core,” said Carlton. “It's extremely important for moving users around Missoula in a non-motorized and sustainable way.”

Carlton said the Schmidt Road easement and other projects associated with the extension would trigger other agreements. As plans fall into place, the city also is looking for revenue to build the bridge across the Clark Fork near the Tower Street Conservation Area.

“We have submitted bids for that and received and retained an engineering firm to design plans for that,” Carlton said. “It's going to be an expensive undertaking, but we think we can find the funds and we think it's a viable route for the path.”