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Missoula to seek federal grant for Front-Main conversion, Higgins Avenue

Front Street
Posted at 9:06 AM, Jan 23, 2023

MISSOULA - With much of the engineering work needed to convert Front and Main streets back into two-way traffic complete, the City of Missoula plans to apply for federal funding to help cover the cost of implementing the vision.

But with an eye on making changes to Higgins Avenue and improvements to Caras Park also on the table, the city will add other projects to mix, saying one compliments the other and plays into the larger transportation plan for the downtown district.

“This is all about mobility,” said Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency.

A feasibility study conducted in 2015 found that converting Front and Main back into two-way traffic would create more parking and improve the flow of non-motorized travel. That same study also suggested that local retailers and restaurants would see an economic boost of around 10% to 13% from customer traffic.

Seeing the project was both realistic and beneficial, MRA in 2021 funded $450,000 in design and engineering work to get the conversion “shovel ready” in the event that federal funding was found. The project carried an estimated cost of around $4.5 million two years ago.

The city now plans to apply for funding from the new federal RAISE grant and build a delegation of supporters to enhance its odds of success. The city is eligible to receive around $1 million, according to Deborah Postma, an associate planner with the Missoula Metropolitan Organization.

“It promotes downtown Missoula as a safe, comfortable and accessible destination for all users,” she said of the plans. “It enhances pedestrian access by improving connections to the park and trail system downtown, and it improves traffic efficiency while maintaining parking spaces in downtown.”

Other project elements

While the proposal to convert Front and Main has been around for years, plans for Higgins Avenue and the Riverfront Trail system are relatively new.

The City Council has yet to approve the preferred alternative for Higgins Avenue, which looks to reduce the road from four lanes to three between Brooks Street and Broadway.

Council is expected to take up the issue this week and if approved, work on Higgins would be added to the RAISE grant application. As envisioned in the Downtown Master Plan, the work on Higgins would add dedicated left-turn lanes, new cycling facilities and safer intersections.

“These changes will help promote Higgins into downtown Missoula as a destination rather than a through-street for vehicles,” said Postma.

Along with the conversion of Front and Main, and changes to Higgins Avenue, the city also plans to add other projects to its grant application, including a wider Riverfront Trail, new gateways into Caras Park and an ADA ramp from Beartracks Bridge into the park.

The price of each project hasn't been identified, though it will be as early as next month, Postma said. The RAISE grant requires a 20% local match.

“The city is still finalizing the cost estimates for all the project elements,” Postma said. “Once we finalize these, we'll know what our local match will be and we'll have a better idea of what funding sources we'll need.”

It's likely that MRA will be asked to contribute to the match using tax increment from the district. The grant application is due in February.

“Usually you find out about grants in six months,” said Postma. “If we did win this grant, any construction wouldn't begin for two or three years from now.”

The delay is due to the need to design and engineer changes to certain projects, including the ADA ramp and Higgins Avenue. Much of the design and engineering work has already been done on Front and Main.

“Front and Main are pretty much designed and engineered,” said Buchanan. “Higgins is still in concept but pretty far along. There's still a lot of design work that would have to take place before we start construction.”

Federal funding needed

The city applied for and received a $13 million federal BUILD grant in 2019 to fund work in the Sxwtpqyen area. In doing so, it learned a number of lessons throughout the process, including the need to lobby for the successful outcome of an application.

The old BUILD grant is now the RAISE grant, but while the names have changed, the city plans to approach its new application the same – including coalition building.

“If we get it through the technical review, we're going to have to start politicking,” said Buchanan. “If you're not leaning on your federal representatives, going to Washington and knocking on doors, you don't have the exposure compared to the people who do that.”