Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) In hopes of presenting a strong application for a federal transportation grant, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and other downtown partners plan to offer a small local match in hopes of landing a larger pot of funding.

Earlier this month, the City Council signed off on the preferred design for changes to a number of downtown streets, including Higgins Avenue, and Front and Main streets. In doing so, it cleared the way for transportation officials to apply for a $25 million RAISE grant.

MRA's board of commissioners followed last week by approving up to $1 million in tax increment from any number of urban renewal districts to present as a match. The match isn't required, but it could make the city's application stronger, officials suggest.

“We think to be competitive, it would be good if we did come up with a match,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “Our goal is to come up with a 5% match. I think we can get there.”

MRA will pledge $1 million to the work while the Downtown Business Improvement District will be asked to provide up to $40,000. The Downtown Foundation would also pledge the remaining $10,000.

City transportation officials have set the estimated cost for the work at $23 million. It would fund the return of Front and Main streets back to two-way traffic and make pedestrian improvements at a number of downtown intersections.

It also would reduce Higgins Avenue from Sixth Street to Broadway to two travel lanes. But in doing so, it would add a dedicated center turn lane, protected bike lanes and pedestrian safety enhancements.

While the conversion of Front and Main hasn't proven to be controversial, the planned changes to Higgins Avenue have rankled some members of the public. However, transportation officials said there is no single solution to solving the street's challenges, and the preferred alternative offers something for all users.

Josephine Hazelton-Boyle, a professor and transportation policy expert at the University of Montana, said projects like that planned for Higgins Avenue almost always face initial opposition.

“Transportation projects that reduce vehicular travel space almost always face initial opposition from some members of the public,” she said. “However, cities across the country and around the world have proven that this concept of a ‘road diet’ can decrease vehicular crash rates and improve the safety of cyclists and pedestrians.”

Hazelton-Boyle said the city's plans for Higgins Avenue will play a crucial role in furthering Missoula's bike network while providing important safety improvements for pedestrians and transit users.

In the end, she said the project would lead to minimal changes in vehicular travel times.

“We can’t ignore the role transportation plays in climate change,” she said. “Projects that help to encourage people to use active and public modes of transportation will help the city meet important environmental sustainability goals. I see the Higgins Avenue plans as being a win for everyone.”

The city plans to submit its application for the RAISE grant this month. But it could be months before it knows if the application is successful. If it is, construction wouldn't begin for years.

“We probably wont know until fall or winter,” Buchanan said of the grant. “These things don't move quickly. If we get approved, we're not looking at construction until 2025 or 2026.”

The city has been successful in other grant applications. It recently received $9 million to make improvements to South Avenue west of Reserve Street. It also received $13 million from the old federal BUILD Grant to begin infrastructure and transportation work in the booming Mullan area.

In that grant, the city had sought around $23 million, and while it hopes to win the full request from the RAISE Grant, it's possible that it may only win a portion of it.

“You'd have to figure out how to cobble the rest together,” Buchanan said. “I suspect that if we got part of it, the Front and Main project is eons ahead of any other component in here. The city will have to figure out where the money is spent because we have four or five different projects in this grant application.”