By Martin Kidston

The Metropolitan Planning Organization hosted an open house Thursday night to gather public input on options presented in the city's new Long Range Transportation Plan.

The final option, which has yet to be selected, will inform where Missoula spends an estimated $100 million in discretionary funding over the next 30 years on its transit system.

“We're in the second-to-last stage for an update to our transportation plan,” said Jessica Morriss, the city's transportation planning manager “We're looking at four different options or scenarios right now, and we want to get feedback on those options.”

As presented to the public on Thursday night, the four options recommended by the MPO include a number of scenarios. One would invest more heavily in costly road projects geared toward the automobile, while another would direct funding toward alternative modes such as bike and transit, in an effort to reduce traffic.

Each of the options presents benefits and challenges, Morriss said. They also come with varying costs, some going farther than the others.

“Each of the options is a slightly different breakdown of how the funds get allocated around the different types of projects – roadway projects, bike projects, transit and safety,” Morriss said. “We've got a number of different categories and we'll divy the funding among the different scenarios.”

Over the next 30 years, Morriss said, the city will likely received around $600 million in transportation funding. Of that, as much as $500 million is already earmarked, whether it's from gas taxes for road maintenance or operating funds from the Federal Transit Administration.

That leaves $100 million in discretionary funding that can be allocated to other projects. It could be used to pay for two or three roadway projects, leaving other options off the table. It could also be used to improve and expand other modes of transportation while directing less toward roads.

“It sounds like a lot of money, but in transportation, it's not,” said Morriss. “That's why we have to be thoughtful in how we spend it. That's what this process is intended to do. We need to look at it from a regional perspective and how we invest that money over the long term.”

According to the plan, maintaining the status quo would result in 30,000 additional daily vehicle trips by 2045. The plan's moderate goal would see an increase of 2,200 daily trips, while the plan's most ambitious goal would result in 20,000 fewer vehicle trips each day.

That would require a major shift in the city's transportation focus, though it's an option some are pushing for. A fourth option would distribute funding across all modes while directing more toward public transit.

Much of it comes down to planning for the future and deciding now what sort of city Missoula becomes, Morriss said.

“We're not only looking at population growth, but also our expected employment growth, our expected housing growth, and how the transportation system can support that growth, or foster it in a smart way that makes the best use of our resources,” said Morriss.

Morriss said the Transportation Policy Coordinating Committee will eventually select one of the four options. The committee includes two Missoula County commissioners, one City Council member, the city's mayor, a representative of the Montana Department of Transportation and Mountain Line.

A recommended plan should be out by the end of the year. After additional public comment, it will move toward adoption next year.

“We only have so much money to spend on transportation, and it's not enough,” she said. “It's got to be cost efficient and effective, and we have to serve all modes. We have to make combinations for everyone, and make sure people can get around in a multitude of ways.”

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