Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Faced with a growing safety risk, Missoula County has spent the past two years looking for ways to alleviate parking and traffic near a popular river recreation site in East Missoula.

Along with the Montana Department of Transportation, and state Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the county settled upon plans to build a 60-car parking lot off Highway 200 with a trail connecting the lot to the Sha-Ron river access site.

While most see the plan as a solution to the problems facing the site, and while some residents support the project, others are pushing back, saying the parking lot and trail will impact their property, privacy and safety.

“This parking lot is not going to solve the problem,” said Darcy Stieger, who owns property alongside the parking lot. “I'm just sick over this. It's going to be a nightmare for all of us.”

Others offered similar concerns last week when the county held a public hearing over the proposed parking lot. Toilet facilities, fencing, traffic, noise and theft topped the list of concerns, along with trash and the perceived taking of private property to accommodate the project.

However, the county said the parking lot will sit on right-of-way owned by the Montana Department of Transportation, and the trail will utilize an existing easement. MDT has worked with the county to find solutions to what many agree is a safety issue along the highway shoulder, where dozens of cars are parked on hot summer days to access the river.

“Where the parking lot is, that's on a MDT-owned, fee-titled right of way. The trail that goes down to the river is a MDT-owned easement,” said Shane Stack, director of Public Works for the county. “We've reached out to MDT for concurrence on all the work we're doing inside their easements. They believe they have the right to give us the authority to construct those.”

The county began searching for a parking solution more than two years ago, expressing concerns that cars parked along the highway and the speed of traffic would eventually lead to tragedy.

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The recently released plan for the Highway 200 corridor through East Missoula included the project in its vision. The parking lot was expected to go to construction this year, though project partners needed more time to finalize agreements.

Commissioner Josh Slotnick said the parking lot and trail would help address concerns among neighbors over congestion, trash, speed and general safety.

“The impetus for creating this is an attempt to alleviate that problem,” Slotnick said. “This is our best effort to get cars off the highway so it's not dangerous, and to contain people so they're not trespassing, and make it so there is a place for them to put their garbage.”

Others also expressed concerns over wildlife, saying they've seen many species come off Mount Jumbo and cross the property to access the river. But other residents are backing the project, saying it has been needed for years.

“I don't know of any real injuries there, or any deaths. But the probability of it happening are exceptional,” said Burt Caldwell. “People get out of their cars, step out into the street and don't look for traffic. Anything you can do to get those cars off the side of the road will be a great thing. It will be a preventative measure of someone getting hurt or killed in the future.”

Concerns over speed remain, however. The road is state owned and the county is limited on addressing the current speed limit. But Stack said MDT is aware of the issue and has already conducted a speed study.

A future decision on speed limits will be considered after the parking lot is built – if it goes to construction. A parking restriction could also be considered in the future.

“We've had multiple conversations about this, and there was a speed limit study completed by MDT three years ago,” Stack said. “That data is still pretty fresh. Once this parking lot is in place, it could potentially change how traffic operates in that area to the extend we could see a reduction in speeds.”

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