MISSOULA - After years of planning, the conversion of Front and Main streets into two-way traffic in downtown Missoula took a significant step this week when the Missoula Redevelopment Agency allocated funding to get the project fully designed.
Once that's completed, most likely by spring, the city will pursue federal infrastructure funding to complete the project. HDR Engineering will head the design work under the $233,000 contract approved on Thursday.
“It's been a fun project and there's a lot of great energy and momentum behind it right now,” said Tim Erickson with HDR. “This gives us the opportunity to get this to the finish line with the vision the community has designed for Front and Main.”
Front and Main were initially built as two-way streets but converted to one-way traffic in the 1950s. The practice was popular in American cities at the time, believing one-way traffic could move cars out of the city faster.
But one-way traffic has lost its value and the first Missoula Downtown Master Plan in 2009 recommended converting the streets back to their original pattern. The newest downtown plan, completed in 2015, also recommended moving the protected bike lanes off Broadway and placing them on Main Street.
“Broadway is the Montana Department of Transportation's only east-west route other than the interstate north or the river,” said MRA director Ellen Buchanan. “It might not be the best place to accommodate all the things we want to accommodate in the right-of-way. The recommendation was to move the protected bike lanes to Main Street.”
However, that also presented challenges given the lack of room. Placing two-way bike lanes on Main would have consumed “a ton of parking,” Buchanan said. The solution now is to place bike lanes running in one direction on Main Street and the other direction on Front.
“That minimized the amount of parking we were going to lose to have travel lanes that worked for MDT, Mountain Line and emergency vehicles,” said Buchanan. “Nobody got 100% of what they wanted.”
A feasibility study funded by MRA in 2015 found that converting Front and Main back to two-way traffic would create more parking, improve the flow of non-motorized travel and boost traffic to downtown businesses by as much as 13%.
Now, the city is also planning to convert Higgins Avenue south of Broadway with more pedestrian and bike amenities. The preferred alternative will likely include two travel lanes, a center lane, and protected bike lanes on either side of the road.
A decision on that is expected soon and until it does, the future of Higgins could slow the final design of Front and Main. HDR will coordinate with Kittleson and Associates, which is engineering the Higgins project.
“The Higgins project is well behind the Front and Main redesign and how the intersections and traffic signals will be integrated is challenging,” Buchanan said. “In an ideal world, we might be able to combine the two projects and seek federal infrastructure funding for one large project.”
Funding approved Thursday by MRA includes a number of elements beyond bike lanes and the placement of trees, utility poles and parking. It also includes a virtual traffic simulation for a proposed signal at Madison Avenue and Front Street, and a traffic analysis of development planned in the Riverfront Triangle.
“We now have a different group of developers that have a strong interest in redeveloping that (Riverfront Triangle) property,” Buchanan said. “This (traffic analysis) is the most expedient way to get those questions on and off the table about whether we need additional turn lanes or additional right-of-way dedication.”