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Missoula’s multi-modal transportation needs linger; bonds could come

A cyclist navigates traffic and construction on Higgins Avenue. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

A fatal May bicycle accident in Missoula has members of the City Council and the public calling for increased investment in safer multi-model transportation options, and one group even wants the city to seek a public vote on a general obligation bond to fund sidewalks.

Members of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board have penned a letter to city leaders asking them to explore “new and alternative ways” to fund sidewalks throughout Missoula. The committee specifically suggested municipal bonds and “bringing an initiative to voters to fund non-motorized transportation projects.”

If the city were to act on the request, it could be one of several bonds placed before voters in the coming years.

“We believe it is in the economic, environmental and social interest of the city to vastly expand, if not complete, the sidewalk network as quickly as possible,” the committee wrote in its letter. “With many areas of our city lacking sidewalks entirely or continuous sidewalks, we are concerned that the current funding mechanisms do not meet the city’s climate, equity or multi-modal goals.”

A number of bonds could be presented to voters this or next year. Among them, Luce Research has conducted a survey testing voters’ appetite for a general obligation bond to construct facilities at the Missoula County fairgrounds, including an ice arena and 4-H facilities. That survey presented a number of funding scenarios and bond amounts.

Missoula’s Parks Department is also looking to construct a $44 million recreation and community center as an addition to the aquatics center in McCormick Park. While no official decision has been made on how the facility will be funded, a general obligation bond was used to construct the existing Currents Aquatic Center, along with the public library and Fort Missoula Regional Park.

This week, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board presented a letter in its meeting urging the city to at least consider a bond to fund sidewalks and multi-modal infrastructure.

“Sidewalks provide safe connectivity for all community members including children and families, the elderly, and those who are differently abled,” the committee contends. “The lifespan of sidewalks exceeds that of roads, and thus has a high return on investment.”

Members of the City Council have yet to weigh in on any of the funding requests, though many contend that infrastructure around multi-modal transportation must increase. And for years, sidewalk funding has been a source of contention given the cost.

Council member Jordan Hess said the recent fatal accident of a bicyclist on Orange Street served as “a stark and painful reminder” of the city’s multi-modal shortcomings.

“We have visionary planning documents around transportation. We have aspirational long-range transportation plans. We need to keep working toward those goals,” he said.

While efforts to improve safety along a number of busy streets are in the planning effort, including the reconfiguration of Higgins Avenue, Orange Street remains an outlier. The cyclist was traveling northbound on the southbound sidewalk when the accident occurred, according to the accident report.

“This is a road that’s controlled by the state and engineered to move traffic at speeds that are faster than the posted speed limit, and that’s not how we should design roads,” Hess said. “This is an inflection point where we can think about how we design roads and we can do it better, and I hope we do.”

Bicycle advocacy groups in Missoula and supporters of wider multi-modal infrastructure have also grown louder in recent years in their call for greater investment. During this week’s City Council meeting, several cited the need for safer non-motorized infrastructure.

“We need more bike-safe roadways to provide our community with safe and effective non-motorized transportation options,” one resident said. “We lack the infrastructure for it and people don’t feel as safe as a result.”