Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A development agreement years in the making will set the stage for a new traffic signal on Orange Street, making it easier to exit the growing Sawmill District near downtown Missoula.

The agreement, approved by members of City Council on Wednesday, also calls for greenspace within the district to connect the Milwaukee Trail to Silver Park.

Both projects are tied to approaching phases of development, the city said.

“The city's goal was to get the traffic signal built as soon as possible. The parties agreed the signal is warranted now, without the need for additional traffic impact studies,” said city planner Mary McCrea. “The city is in a better position to manage the project through the review process to prevent delays and scope creep, which could increase the cost of the project.”

Under the agreement, the developer will cover its share of designing the signal at Orange Street and Cregg Lane in the next phase of development, which is expected to begin soon. The financial arrangement places 53% of the cost on the developer, or around $424,000, and the rest on the city, or around $376,000.

The agreement involved nearly three-dozen rounds of edits, and both sides expressed satisfaction with the result. City officials said the Montana Department of Transportation supports the signal and agrees the time to install it has arrived.

The intersection of Orange Street and Cregg Lane.
The intersection of Orange Street and Cregg Lane.

Jeremy Keen, director of Public Works for the city, said a roundabout was considered for the intersection of Orange Street and Cregg Lane. But given a range of challenges, building a roundabout would cost around $4 million versus the estimated $800,000 for a traffic signal.

“We did look at a roundabout here, but there's a number of challenges,” said Keene. “Because this is currently a four- or five-lane road, we'd be looking at a multi-lane roundabout and that reduces some of the benefits for safety you gain with a roundabout.”

Still, bicycle advocates on Wednesday urged the city to reconsider the project and focus instead on reducing the five lanes of traffic on Orange Street to just three lanes. Doing so, they contend, would allow room for a roundabout at the intersection with Cregg Lane.

“They (roundabouts) fit within a three-lane configuration, completely,” said Bob Giordano, executive director of the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation. “We're going to be designing Orange for a two-lane or three-lane street. It's our assertion that traffic flow will improve. Bikes can have a protected bike lane.”

The city years ago reduced portions of West Broadway to three lanes and has already approved plans to do the same on Higgins Avenue. While such projects are praised by the bicycle community, they aren't so pleasing to motorists and some members of the downtown business community.

City officials on Wednesday said it's likely too late to consider a lane reduction on Orange Street given the years it took to approve a similar reduction on Higgins Avenue.

“The discussion with MDT was two-plus years going to a three-lane street there on Higgins, and the community still isn't settled on that,” said Keene. “Throwing Orange Street into that discussion right now is going to be very challenging. I don't know that going to three lanes is the answer, but I do know it would be a long process to figure that out.”

It could also present challenges for future development of the Old Sawmill District. The agreement approved on Wednesday triggers certain improvements, including greenspace and the signal, when new phases of development within the district take place.

If the city were to back out of the agreement for a traffic signal, it would delay housing construction within the district, said Ryan Salisbury with WGM Group.

“This development agreement is key to the next final plat, which we're about to send to the City of Missoula for review,” he said. “That final plat would be delayed. We also have plans to do a subsequent final plat in March or April. If that signal or roundabout, somewhere between $1 million and $4 million, the developer would be very concerned about the increase in cost.”