Land use, transportation shift among solutions to Reserve Street congestion

Riders avoid the traffic by crossing the South Reserve Street pedestrian bridge. Getting commuters out of their car and onto the bus, a bicycle or their own two feet would go far in reducing congestion on Reserve Street, the city of Missoula’s transportation planner told an advisory committee this week. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Getting commuters out of their car and onto the bus, a bicycle or their own two feet would go far in reducing congestion on Reserve Street, the city of Missoula’s transportation planner told an advisory committee this week.

Addressing growth patterns and making different land-use decisions could also impact future traffic. Missoula will continue to grow, Aaron Wilson said, and good planning will be key in alleviating congestion.

“How that growth gets designed has a big impact on traffic on Reserve,” Wilson said. “If we continue suburban sprawl out west of Reserve, people will have no other choice but to drive based on distance and what services are located next to them.”

Members of the Transportation Policy Coordinating Committee took up Reserve Street planning, safety and design at their Tuesday meeting, looking at both current data and long-term projections.

With a costly and unrealistic expansion of the corridor unlikely – along with a bypass – changing how the public gets around the corridor represents the most cost-effective and impactful solution to congestion, Wilson said.

The city’s long-range plan looks to boost transit and push for 15-minute bus service on North Reserve. It also includes eliminating the barriers faced by cyclists and pedestrians when trying to cross the corridor.

“All of these things are in individual plans but they all tie together,” Wilson said. “We’re looking at those relationships, where you need to improve the pedestrian intersections, allow transit to work, and allow people to permeate across Reserve to take trips by foot and not necessarily by car.”

According to the city, traffic on Reserve Street at Union Pacific has remained steady over the past 18 years, fluctuating from roughly 30,000 to 35,000 daily vehicle trips.

Current statistics also suggest that 70 percent of people in Missoula still drive alone while only 6.4 percent walk. Less than 5 percent bike and 2.3 percent ride the bus. Changing that equation could have significant impacts, Wilson said.

“The key solution we have in the Long Range Transportation Plan to accommodate growth and to help address congestion and how people are getting around is to think about mode shifts, or making it easier for people to chose something other than the car,” he said. “The more you can encourage that and select those modes, the more efficiently you’re using the transportation system.”

The long range plan adopted an ambitious goal of reducing drive-alone commutes from 70 percent to 34 percent by 2045. Achieving that goal, Wilson said, would see 20,000 fewer drive-alone trips, meaning fewer cars on the road.

Achieving the plan’s moderate goal would reduce drive-alone trips to 50 percent by 2045.

“Even the moderate goal would keep traffic volumes where they are today, accommodating 30 years of growth,” Wilson said. “It frames how we think about transportation here, and being more efficient rather than continually going to very expensive capacity expansion projects where you’re adding lanes and only adding to the problem.”

Ed Toavs, administrator of the Missoula District Office with the Montana Department of Transportation, said the city’s complete streets project may warrant future discussion, particularly where Reserve is concerned.

He cautioned the city from buying up right-of-way with an expansion in mind, calling it an unrealistic project that would have little impact.

“That will trigger a project that’s untenable,” he said. “Your project costs and impact costs are going to be untenable for the funding, and the support as well, I’d imagine. If you’re talking about mode split, how do you make that more attractive on Reserve Street than it is today?”

Identifying a community vision for Reserve may be the place to start, Wilson said.

“If it’s moving as many vehicles as fast as possible through Reserve Street, that looks very different than making it as safe, accessible and usable to as many people as possible, and as many modes,” he said. “Coming to that conclusion about what that ultimate goal is will help us craft a process to address that, and some solutions.”