By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Members of the Missoula City Council took its first deep dive into creating a sidewalk master plan on Wednesday, launching a project that will likely result in a new strategy to manage the city's sidewalk infrastructure.

That could include bringing sidewalks to neighborhoods where they're lacking – an effort that carries an estimated cost of $28 million.

“Missing sidewalks are one of the reasons I ran for City Council to begin with,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler. “In my neighborhood, there's a baffling mix of sidewalks and no sidewalks. The three lowest-income neighborhoods in town have low sidewalk infrastructure.”

Over the years, the city has operated from an informal sidewalk plan, and while it has served its purpose, most members of the council believe the process could be improved.

Several council members also believe that a master plan is needed to bring equity to the system. In one recent case, the city replaced existing sidewalks in the Slant Street neighborhood, even as other neighborhoods continue to go without.

That, according to Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley, suggests the city needs a policy to guide its approach to building and repairing sidewalks.

“It's important to have a plan and follow the principles in the plan,” Bentley said. “But really, it's a policy decision and the council needs to guide what's in it. I don't want to see us replace a somewhat adequate sidewalk ever again until the urban core is fully sidewalked.”

Doug Harby, the construction project manager with the city, said roughly 70 percent of the city's sidewalks are completed by developers outside of city projects. In the past, he said, the city has focused its own sidewalk priorities on areas where street projects can support the sidewalk infrastructure, or where foot traffic is thought to be the heaviest.

But several council members suggested that represented lopsided reasoning. They believe foot traffic would also increase if sidewalks were installed in areas where they're lacking.

“The areas that don't have the sidewalks often don't have any curbs or gutters,” said Marler. “If we continue to prioritize areas where the street is ready for a sidewalk, it's just going to continue in this pattern. We need to make a unified push to try and do some of these other neighborhoods.”

Jessica Morriss, the city's transportation planning manager, said her office would work with the council to create a plan moving forward. That would likely unfold in three stages, including an assessment of existing sidewalk conditions and prioritizing future projects, as well as the spending that comes with them.

In 2012, the city had roughly 394 miles of sidewalk, though it's currently missing around 360 miles. Filling out the city's missing sidewalks would cost upwards of $28 million. Added with missing curbs, sidewalk hazards and other needs, the cost climbs to $168 million.

“We know where sidewalks are and where they aren't,” said Morriss. “We do have a pretty good handle on that. What we don't have a good handle on is what the condition is. There's a lot of discussions to be had on how we want to prioritize and how we want to fund it.”

Members of the council would like to see that priority move away from replacing existing sidewalks and focus on building sidewalks in neighborhoods where there aren't any.

“If we keep focusing on repairing existing sidewalks in the urban core, we'll get done with that and it will be time to do it again,” Bentley said. “We'll never make any progress in neighborhoods that are underserved.”

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