By Martin Kidston

A $2.5 million project to reduce Higgins Avenue from four lanes to three between Brooks Street and Broadway ranked 11th on a list of roadway projects planned for the Missoula metropolitan area over the next 30 years.

It also prompted a larger philosophical debate on the city's future transit system, how friendly it was to business interests, and who's actually driving the local philosophy on growth and development.

The Transportation Policy Coordinating Committee on Tuesday approved an “ambitious” mode-split goal that would distribute roughly $97 million in discretionary funding over the next 30 years to a variety of needs, from roadway improvements to public transit.

Under the chosen scenario, $47.6 million would fund roadway improvements, $21.9 million to non-motorized needs and around $15.2 million to transit. The latter pool would enable Mountain Line to launch the next phase of its growth plan, which includes 15-minute headway service on Brooks Street.

“The feeling was that Scenario 4 was the better scenario because it was a bit more balanced and that it addressed the public input more broadly,” said Jessica Morriss, the city's transportation planning manager. “It also allows for the next phase of the Mountain Line expansion, which is the Bolt! service on Brooks.”

Like the city's growth policy, transportation scenarios considered by the committee attempt to envision the Missoula metro area in 2045, by which time the city's population is expected to crest 100,000 people with roughly 20,000 new households.

With that comes congestion and the possibility of an additional 30,000 daily vehicle trips. By taking an “ambitious” approach to solving the transportation challenges, officials hope to reduce drive-alone commutes by 20,000 and triple those who bike, walk or bus.

Members of the committee all supported the overarching goals of the chosen scenario, though the ranking of projects and the general philosophy behind it rankled some.

“We pretty much all agree that we'd want to decrease single occupancy vehicles so folks that don't have any other choice have the room to move, and goods and services also have the room in which to move,” said Missoula County Commissioner Stacy Rye, a member of the committee.

“My problem lies in projects that make it difficult to move just to make it difficult to move, like the Higgins conversion to three lanes,” she added. “That's an exercise in penalizing people. It's a stick approach rather than a carrot approach.”

Ward 1 City Council member Jordan Hess, also a committee member, disagreed. While the ranking of projects may be an academic exercise given the lack of funding to actually pay for them, he said, they still create a narrative that guides future planning.

The goals also adhere to the city's inward philosophy on growth while balancing roadway projects that benefit all users. Adhering to the Long Range Transportation Plan, he noted, could dictate spending across an array of categories and by a number of agencies.

“We're seeing development patterns now that reflect that type of approach,” Hess said. “I think while it's an academic exercise, it's also a way to move the needle ever so slightly in the direction we want to go.”

Over the plan’s 30 years, transportation officials are projecting roughly $600 million in revenue, with roughly $97 million of that being discretionary.

With the mode split goals approved and a transportation scenario selected, Morriss said her office will begin drafting a new Long Range Transportation Plan.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at