Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Citing gaps in the Great American Trail as it crosses portions of western Montana, members of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday approved an agreement with several other counties to pursue funds to plan for the trail's completion.

City officials said that applying for a RAISE planning grant won't jeopardize Missoula's chances of landing a larger RAISE grant to complete any number of transportation project using funding from the same federal program.

“The planning grants are typically a separate pool of funding from the infrastructure grants,” said city transportation planner Aaron Wilson. “For the the city and county of Missoula, I don't know that this would compete with one of the actual construction projects we have. We still have the opportunity to apply for any construction grants we'd be going for in this cycle.”

The Great American Trail stretches from Washington, D.C., to Seattle but is only 54% complete and includes gaps in western Montana.

The Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity grants, or RAISE, represent discretionary funding provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation to help cities carry out projects with significant local or regional impact.

This year, Congress made $1.5 billion available to such programs, and Missoula has a number of projects that could benefit from the funding. While most of them are larger transportation projects, the agreement approved Wednesday is smaller at just $2,500 and would help six western Montana counties plan the feasibility of completing portions of the Great American Trail.

“This would cross Butte-Silver Bow, Deer Lodge, Powell, Granite, Missoula and Mineral counties,” said Wilson. “The trail runs right through the City of Missoula along the Milwaukee corridor. It's a pretty exciting opportunity to get some planning and feasibility work done to complete the western Montana portion of the trail corridor running from Washington, D.C., to Seattle.”

The trail stretches more than 3,700 miles from coast to coast, traversing 12 states along the way. But it's just 54% complete and includes sizable gaps across the six western Montana counties.

The planning grant would enable the counties to assess the feasibility of aligning the trail and bring certain sections of the project to preliminary design. Doing so could position the project for the federal funding needed to implement the work.

“This agreement is just to solidify funding and commitment to apply for the grant,” said Wilson. “Powell and Missoula counties would jointly manage the project moving forward.”

The boxes identify gaps in the Great American Trail between Butte and Thompson Falls.
The boxes identify large gaps in the Great American Trail between Butte and Superior. Smaller gaps are highlight in orange.

Wilson said the Missoula Metropolitan Planning Organization has budgeted most of the work. The $2,500, which represents the city's share, would be drawn from other grant sources and would have no impact on the general fund budget.

“We programmed $100,000 of our federal grant transportation planning funds to go to consultant services for this type of grant application,” Wilson said. “It doesn't have an effect on the city's budget. The MPO would be covering the city's portion in a partnership.”

In Montana, the finished trail would connect 35 rural towns along a 220-mile route. According to the city, that could spark other urban and rural infrastructure improvements while promoting collaboration and economic stimulus.

It could also benefit the Missoula urban area. The trail closely follows the old Milwaukee line, and the Milwaukee Trail serves as a peg in the city's larger commuter trail map.

“We won't be using any of our general funds for this,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “For $2,500, we can get a good idea of the feasibility of this project and position ourselves really well for potential funding so we can complete or initiate this work.”