MISSOULA - With the pros and cons on the table, and after two years of planning and several alternatives, the time has now come for the City of Missoula to make a decision on the future of Higgins Avenue, or let the issue pass.
It plans to pursue the former.
On Wednesday, members of the City Council voted 10-2 to instruct staff to move forward with the project as planned, which includes a reduction from four travel lanes to two but adds a dedicated center turn lane.
It also retains most parking and adds separated bike lanes on what's now a tight travel corridor.
“This is not a road diet. It's an equitable redistribution and reconfiguration of our infrastructure so that everyone can move along one of the main corridors in our community in a safe manner,” said council member Mirtha Becerra.
City transportation officials said no single solution proposed in the Downtown Master Plan checks all the boxes for fixing the problems with Higgins Avenue.
As it stands, the road between its intersection with Brooks Street to Broadway has been reserved for cars, with four narrow travel lines sidled by two equally narrow parking lanes.
Public transportation is a tight fit under the current conditions, and those who bike have little room to navigate traffic. Turning left is largely forbidden — a problem that also makes navigation difficult by car.
But advocates believe the tradeoffs recommended in the current plan accommodate all sides of the debate.
They maintained that position on Wednesday, saying the project will bring benefits if it finds the federal funding needed to complete it.
“We set out to preserve parking on Higgins in this project based on our design, and we think there is a strong potential that there will be economic benefits,” said city transportation manager Arron Wilson. “You're providing space for people and you're creating a better destination, and all those things lead to better business activity rather than just a street for moving cars.”
The chosen plan
Of all the alternatives initially proposed, transportation officials settled on one that would reduce Higgins from four travel lanes to three between Sixth Avenue and Broadway.
It would also add separated bike lanes along the roadway.
The result would look similar to Higgins Avenue north of Broadway. While some parking would be lost south of Broadway with the changes, the reduction would be minimal.
While opponents have tried to bill the project as the city catering to cyclists at the expense of motorists — possibly jeopardizing downtown commerce — advocates said that was not only untrue, it was intentionally misleading.
“We're hearing a lot of feedback right now, and that's great,” said Public Works Director Jeremy Keene. “It's important to think about the ways we're framing this project. It's been a bit bikes versus cars. The real question is how we're going to grow.”
Keene noted the cost of adding capacity to roadways and its failure to address issues with congestion over time. The city widened Reserve Street in the early 1990s and now, three decades later, it's as congested as it was from the start.
The city also has been working to add capacity to Russell Street. It's been a 20-year project and will cost more than $100 million when it's done. And that's just two miles of road, Keene said.
“This is a problem a lot of cities have faced,” he said. “They've tried to build their way out of congestion for 50 years. It's very expensive and frankly, it hasn't worked.”
A mix of opinions
But the Higgins Avenue project has its share of opponents, many of them wanting automotive traffic to remain the key mode of travel in the downtown core.
Scott Billadeau, co-owner of Pangea restaurant and Liquid Planet, both located downtown, has emerged as a leading voice of opposition.
He presented City Council with a petition signed by others on Wednesday who he said are against the changes.
“The signers of this document desire for a vibrant downtown with plenty of parking and easy access in and out of the downtown area,” he said. “Downtown Missoula has been fighting a negative view of downtown for decades. The downtown road diet will only amplify that problem.”
Of the 12 members of the City Council, council members John Contos and Sandra Vasecka also oppose the project.
Vasecka suggested it's unnecessary and comes with too many potential negatives.
“I don't think we should congest this area of town while there's other options available for multi-modal transportation,” she said. “These are good ideas on paper, but I just don't think it's a priority right now. I'm uncomfortable with it, especially with all the opposition.”
City officials said several aspects of the proposal need additional work, but with a preferred concept now on the table, approval from the council will enable staff to begin pursuing federal grants to fund the work.
That final decision is expected on Monday, as the grant application window closes later this month.
No cost has been identified for the work, but the project will likely tie into the conversion of Front and Main streets back to two-way traffic.
The city also has plans to convert Brooks Street to a rapid bus transit system, along with other multi-modal improvements.
Brooks Street, like Higgins, was designed to move cars, but times have changed, advocates say, and Higgins needs work to make it a place that's welcome to all, regardless of how they chose to commute.
“If we have a better corridor, there's going to be more folks biking downtown. They're going downtown to a destination because they're going downtown to spend money,” said council member Gwen Jones. “The more folks who can get downtown in any modality, the better it's going to be all around.”