Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Missoula County signed off on a letter Tuesday in a push to finalize a grant agreement to complete transportation and safety improvements on South Avenue.

In it's letter, the county noted that the City of Missoula has committed to funding the $9.3 million grant's required local match of roughly $1.5 million.

According to the county, the local match will be covered with a combination of reserve funds and property taxes. Supporters of the project said the resulting work will create a safer roadway for all users.

“It'll make for a huge physical change for the folks who live, work and play around South Avenue in the Fort Missoula Regional Park area, and the folks who live on Clements Street where the kids walk to school,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “This is a giant safety increase.”

Last August, the City Council approved $1.5 million in matching funds toward the federal “Safe Streets for All” grant. While two council members – Sandra Vasecka and John Contos – opposed the match, the council majority approved the funding, saying that increased traffic resulting from the regional park and the growing Community Medical Center campus required safety improvements to South Avenue.

“This would provide sidewalks and a shared-use path,” said Shane Stack, the county's director of Public Works. “Call it a complete street from Reserve Street to Clements.”

Both the city and county have eyed improvements to South Avenue for years. To make their application more complete, the county last August approved an agreement with WGM Group to bring the project's design up to 50% completion.

That made the project more appealing to the federal review process and it worked, as the city received the $9 million federal award late last year. Tuesday's action by the county helps complete the grant agreement.

Traffic moves along South Avenue. The city and county are looking to transform the roadway with a Safe Streets For All grant. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
Traffic moves along South Avenue. The city and county are looking to transform the roadway with a Safe Streets For All grant. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

The area west of Reserve Street experienced 113 crashes between 2016 and 2020, according to the county. The road improvements are expected to help minimize crashes by providing improved crossings, left and right turn lanes, and biking and walking connections in the growing area.

At some point in the future, a new bridge could be placed on South Avenue spanning the Bitterroot River. However, that project remains in flux and is separate from the work covered by the Safe Streets for All grant.

“You're looking at sidewalks and share-use paths connecting them to Target Range School, all the way down South Avenue to Reserve. The need is there regardless of whether or not a bridge goes in,” Stack said.

The City Council this week adopted the Midtown Master Plan, which also eyes changes to South Avenue east of Reserve Street. Among other things, it considers South Avenue as a festival street where it approaches the Brooks Street intersection.

“There's this bigger idea of implementing the activation of a festival street concept on South Avenue at Brooks,” EcoNorthwest consultant Tyler Bump told the City Council on Monday. “Over time, public realm improvements might transform this car dominated area into a vibrant place for people and events.”

More on South Avenue and Midtown