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Missoula looks to expand, improve neighborhood traffic plan as new season nears

As the City of Missoula looks to expand its Neighborhood Traffic Management Plan, it’s turning to a number of tools that have proven to be effective at reducing speeds and improving safety, from speed humps to traffic circles and bicycle greenways.

Ensuring the tools are equitably placed around the city has prompted some changes to the program, and a list of projects slated for the coming year are still being defined.

Ben Weiss, a senior transportation planner with the city, said the work includes a number of greenways and safety projects, including work around St. Patrick Hospital and traffic calming and sidewalk work in the Franklin area.

It also includes developing a greenway within the 10th Avenue and Central neighborhoods.

“That is a complete east-west connection that’s on local streets, along 10th Avenue from basically the student housing at the base of Mt. Sentinel,” he said. “With a couple intersection improvements, you can get all the way out to CS Porter and Big Sky High School without having to be on a major street.”

Completing the project will require crossing a number of busy streets, including Russell and Brooks. But Weiss said they’ve already started planning the Brooks crossing into larger plans for busy corridor.

“The pieces are falling in place,” he said. “It’s just figuring out how we get the rest of the work done.”

A traffic engineer in 2020 said Missoula saw nearly 8,000 crashes between 2007 and 2019, which accounted for 942 of them, marking a 60% increase in the annual average. Roughly 33% of those 8,000 crashes happened on city streets with a set speed limit of just 25 miles per hour. Speeding-related crashes costs Missoula around $45 million, the engineer said.

Weiss said the city has a number of tools at hand to address traffic and safety issues, including capital improvement projects, which are expensive and can be hard to fund. Public Works has its list of maintenance projects while the city – in partnership with neighborhoods – can also complete what Weiss described as “quick response” projects.

Those projects came from the city’s traffic calming program, which it realized wasn’t as equitable as hoped. Some neighborhoods have the means and resources to complete aesthetic traffic calming measures, such as landscaped concrete circles at key intersections to slow speeds.

“It resulted in some great projects, but it was all within the Riverfront neighborhood and University District – the areas that had the time and resources to motivate their neighbors to do that,” he said. “We’ve developed a program to move quick and be more responsive to those concerns, while still requiring some amount of citizen engagement.”

That effort now includes what Weiss described as a “quick build” project that uses paint and plastic bollards instead of concrete circles and landscaping. While it doesn’t come with the same aesthetic appeal, it appears to work while allowing the city and neighborhoods to cut costs.

“In the last two years, we’ve installed 17 new traffic calming circles, four new bulb-out intersections, and four new speed humps on Missoula Avenue,” Weiss said. “Those are the three main tools in the arsenal. We’re looking at what the next round of projects are.”

While some neighborhoods wait for traffic calming of any kind, Weiss said existing devices already placed on Maurice Avenue in the University District may be improved and revised. They aren’t working as well as intended, mainly because they’re not wide enough.

But as the city looks at other areas with similar speed and safety concerns, members of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board have supported the approach and the tools the city is using to address the issue.

“I’ve seen traffic coming through these circles, and I think psychologically it slows people down a little bit, regardless of the diameter,” said board member Gene Schmitz. “I think just from that standpoint, the way people are starting to train themselves to deal with roundabouts, they see traffic circles in a similar way.”