Transportation planning spans Missoula, but funding and coordination remain a challenge
With a small pot of funding available for transportation planning, a broad coalition of local officials are working to identify where to direct the revenue and stretch it as far as it will go given the long list of possibilities.
The Transportation Technical Advisory Committee on Thursday said it had roughly $1.7 million available for Fiscal Year 2023, but the list of potential projects needing planning far exceed the revenue.
Getting everyone on the same page may be the first priority.
“The problem is we haven't made a decision on any of this stuff,” said Jeremy Keene, the city's director of Public Works. “We've got a bunch of bits and pieces. How do we coordinate all these elements?”
Members of the committee represent a wide spectrum of local interests, including the city, the county, the fairgrounds, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, the Montana Department of Transportation, and both motorized and non-motorized interests.
Many of the projects discussed on Thursday marked the first time that other members of the committee had heard of them. That includes a Montana Department of Transportation study of the Russell Street corridor from the fairgrounds to 39th Street.
It could include newly signaled intersections at McDonald or 34th Street, improved lighting, a roundabout at the fairgrounds entrance, and safer pedestrian facilities.
“They're looking at the whole thing,” said Ben Weiss, the city's bicycle and pedestrian program manager. “There is some sort of planning effort going on in that corridor.”
Missoula County is making plans of its own to improve the fairgrounds entrance and perimeter of the facility, though it wasn't aware of the MDT study of Russell. The county is willing to donate right-of-way along Brooks for boulevards and safer sidewalks, as well as lighting, according to Emily Brock, director of Economic and Land Development for the county.
Brock, who also chairs the Midtown Master Planning process, urged the group to coordinate its efforts and to ensure the proper associations are notified of the various planning efforts.
“There seems like there's a lot of efforts happening,” said Brock. “That MDT is working on this is news to me. If they're going to do a (Brooks) lighting project, I want to make sure we try to get the Midtown Association involved.”
Weiss also suggested that the committee place the Broadway corridor on its list of projects vying for funding for a study.
Planned development in the Riverfront Triangle, the West Broadway Master Plan, newly designed Costco property and the Mullan BUILD project all have the potential to impact traffic within the corridor, Weiss said.
“We're getting lots of safety concerns around the new Costco entrance at Great Northern and how that has changed the traffic patterns there. And we know the on-ramps at Reserve Street are an issue,” Weiss said. “We anticipate a new signal coming on at Mary Jane, and it could change general travel speeds, and maybe 55 isn't appropriate anymore. There's so many things happening, it seems it might be worth looking closely at them.”
The Metropolitan Planning Organization itself has projects it has identified as a priority, according to transportation planner Aaron Wilson. They range from a new public participation plan to a new street “typology” plan, which would aid in future planning and code reform.
The typology classifies various streets such as connector streets, neighborhood streets, traffic volumes, transit streets and freight ways, among other things.
“It's being able to have the street types and mapping those out and having those in code reform so our requirements on the land-use side match what we're trying to do on the transportation side,” said Wilson. “We've had a lot of conversations at the city, but it's worth putting out for the county folks as to whether that's something we should do in the full urban area, so there's consistency between the city and county.”
Wilson said the city and county, along with their various agencies, also need to get on top of the electric vehicle movement. The state is set to release its version of its alternative fuel corridors, and city officials believe Missoula needs a plan of its own, independent of the state's plan.
That would require coordination between city and county utilities, NorthWestern Energy, the state, and the city and county. It would also cut into available funding.
“We haven't done much locally to think about how we deploy electric vehicle infrastructure – what's needed in terms of utilities, where do we want to deploy them, how do we handle it in the public right-of-way,” Wilson said. “It's seems like things could happen fast on the electric vehicle side and we don't have a good strategy or policy in place to manage it.”
MDT is also planning a pedestrian study by the old Ruby's Inn on Reserve Street, though it's not funded. Russell between Brooks and 39th would follow.
Given all the projects, applying for grants will be key, but even that will cost money. While there's funding available, prioritizing the projects and needs must be completed, Wilson said.
“We can whittle that $1 million down to basically nothing fast,” Wilson said.