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MDT, Missoula County ink agreement securing future Missoula to Frenchtown trail

Bike Trail Missoula
Posted at 4:28 PM, Feb 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-19 18:28:24-05

MISSOULA — The Montana Department of Transportation and Missoula County have reached a construction agreement that could lead to a multi-use trail running from Deschamps Lane near the city out to the former pulp mill near Frenchtown.

The county years ago placed improvements to Mullan Road from Deschamps Lane to Pulp Mill Road at the top of its priority list under the state’s Secondary Roads Program. Over time, the program crept up the list of projects MDT intends to complete.

But when the county submitted improvements to the secondary road as a priority, it didn’t envision the transportation evolution that now includes multiple modes of travel. As a result, MDT didn’t include the path into the project.

“I don’t know that shared-use paths were that en vogue at the time, so when the county submitted this as its high-priority project, it didn’t include the scope of a shared-use path,” said Shane Stack. “When that project was starting to be developed, that’s when the county asked for the path.”

Stack, the county’s director of Public Works, said MDT has agreed to bid the project in two elements, including the $15 million road project and the path, which carries an estimated additional cost of around $1.8 million.

Under the agreement, MDT will fund the road work and, when the trail bid comes back, the county must cover the costs of that portion of the project. It could take several years for the county to find the funding.

“MDT will develop the plans and buy the right of way for the trail. If the cost of building the trail is to great for the county to afford, we don’t have to build it right away,” Stack said. “The right-of-way will still be there, the plans will be available and we can build it with future funding. It’s a pretty good deal for the county.”

Cyclists arrived by the hundreds at Travelers’ Rest near Lolo in 2016 to celebrate the official opening of the Missoula to Lolo Trail.

Like the City of Missoula, the county in recent years has placed more focus on multi-modal travel, including an 8-mile stretch of trail running from Missoula to Lolo.

For years, that project stood just out of reach, at least until Missoula County received a $4.5 million federal grant to construct the project. Work began in 2015 and the M2L Trail opened to great fanfare in July 2016.

Completing that 8-mile stretch finished a project that now extends from Missoula to Hamilton. The trail from Missoula to Frenchtown could be next if the funding can be identified.

“This leaves the door open to the future – it doesn’t commit us to spending money tomorrow,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “It just leaves the door open so we can build it if we can generate the funds in the future. Without this (right-of-way dedication), it would be far less feasible.”

Trails and paths for nonmotorized transportation have grown in priority as the Missoula metropolitan area grows both in size and population. The City of Missoula this week unveiled the latest draft of its Long Range Transportation Plan, which leans heavily on trails, paths and complete streets.

Last month, the county also secured a $25,000 easement needed to bring the Milwaukee Trail west to Mullan Road. That easement was secured using revenue from the 2006 Open Space Bond.

Acquiring the public access easement along Schmidt Road costs roughly $25,000, with funds coming from the countywide 2006 Open Space Bond.

Eventually, Stack said, the shared-use path from Pulp Mill Road will connect to the city’s network of trails and those planned in the Mullan area infrastructure project, which is expected to start this spring.

“It’s that next piece of trail, but there’s a segment of trail between Deschamps Lane and Cody Lane that we’d eventually have to construct as well,” Stack said. “We’re in the neighborhood of five years, plus or minus, before we’d see construction starting. We’ve discussed some different funding options in the past.”

Stack said funding from the Parks and Trails Bond could be one funding source.

“This sounds like a good piece of work to set the stage for a future project,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.