-Martin Kidston reporting for the Missoula Current
MISSOULA – Members of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday agreed to support the county’s application for an $18 million federal grant to help fund a grid of connector streets off Mullan Road west of Reserve Street.
But the decision wasn’t unanimous, and it led to a wider discussion of growth and the role the city should play in guiding it.
The county this month announced plans to pursue the federal BUILD grant to fund roughly half of the $33 million project, itself intended to guide growth off Mullan Road and address transportation issues through a grid of roads connecting to West Broadway.
The county applied for the grant last year as well, and while it came close to approval, the application didn’t clear the final hurdle. This time around, project partners plan to correct the application’s deficiencies.
“The other thing we didn’t do is the political lobbying side to make sure we had a presence and that folks were aware of this project and pushing for it in D.C.,” said Aaron Wilson, the city’s transportation planner. “It’s being submitted by the county, but the city would be a partner, since this is an area of anticipated future development.”
The grant itself is valued at roughly $18 million and the local community would provide a match of roughly $15 million. That includes around $2 million in transportation funds from the city and a contribution from the county.
In withholding his support for the application, council member John DiBari expressed a number of concerns. They included what he sees as a lack of planning between the city and county, and inequitable funding contributions.
“If we’re going to be partners – and it sounds like there’s a great partnership developing around this – then we should be equal partners,” DiBari said. “I also feel like all that good work that’s anticipated between the city and county around planing that would need to take place to use all this infrastructure is lagging behind our appetite to build that infrastructure.”
As planned, the project would first connect George Elmer Drive and Mary Jane Boulevard from Mullan Road to West Broadway. England Boulevard would intersect both routes. Trails and improvements to Miller Creek are also included.
Wilson said the federal grant requires shovel-ready projects that can be completed in five to seven years after receiving funding. Other projects eyed for improvements in Missoula didn’t rise to that level, he said.
“There aren’t too many projects at that stage and at that level in Missoula,” said Wilson. “We looked at the potential for funding Russell Street, and with this grant there’s been some interest in doing work on Brooks Street. But the only one that seemed ready and appropriate for funding in this round was the Mullan-area project.”
DiBari suggested those other projects, Brooks Street, in particular, would have a greater immediate impact on growth in Missoula. Development pressure off Mullan Road was prompted in part by the city’s decision to extend sewer to area, he said, and it was a bad decision.
“Simultaneously, there wasn’t a commitment or interest among folks living in Target Range and Orchard Homes to figure out a way to better develop that part of town which was already occupied, whereas this area of town wasn’t yet occupied,” he said.
But now the Mullan area has developed and will continue to grow, adding urgency to the county’s application, supporters say. Members of the North Reserve district have lobbied the city heavily for transportation improvements in recent years.
“I’m sure the decision to work on this BUILD grant was a political one, not one of how we actually want to build our community,” DiBari said. “If we were really smart about how we developed around Brooks Street, at least as many people could be housed in a different way in Midtown Missoula as might be housed out (Mullan), especially as this is largely single-family development, which I hope it isn’t.”
Council member Mirtha Becerra didn’t disagree with DiBari’s take, saying a truly equal partnership will be needed between the city and county as the effort moves forward.
But a number of pressures are facing the Mullan area now, she added, and the grant would go far in addressing them before the area becomes another Target Range or Orchard Homes.
“It’s something we’re going to need to address regardless,” said Becerra. “In terms of planning, we should have and could have done things differently, but that train has left the station and now we have a problem. I’m really hoping we can get this grant.”
Jeremy Keene, head of Public Works, also supported the grant, saying it would accelerate city and county efforts to address transportation issues in the area and guide pending development.
In addressing DiBari’s concerns, he said joint planning is taking place, even if its progress is slow.
“What we saw in Orchard Homes was a lack of foresight and ability to get out ahead of potential development,” said Keene. “In this area, we can lay the groundwork for good development to happen. We can be in a position to help guide that development and create the kinds of densities and land-use forms we want to see in this area so we get the full advantage of those public infrastructure investments.”