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Missoula transportation planners push to ready projects for construction with anticipated federal funding

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Posted at 11:31 AM, Aug 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-11 13:31:05-04

MISSOULA — Area transportation advisors agreed to contribute 50% of the cost of a new position requested by the City of Missoula to help move various transportation plans from concept to design in a bid to compete for federal funding.

The funding, provided by the Missoula Metropolitan Planning Organization, amounts to around $35,000 annually over the next two or three years and is intended to get more transportation projects “shovel ready” in anticipation of infrastructure funding.

“There could be a lot of federal funding available and in order to manage that workload, we’re going to need some additional staff capacity at all levels,” said Aaron Wilson. “It’s a way the MPO can help fund a position to help get projects developed, ready to go, and implemented.”

Wilson, the city’s transportation planner, told members of the Transportation Technical Advisory Committee that the position will help the MPO and its partners chase federal grants and move projects to engineering and ultimate construction.

Jeremy Keen, the city’s director of Public Works and Mobility, said the MPO has written a range of solid plans in recent years but needs to do more to push them forward toward implementation. The new position will help, he said.

“We’re kind of at a point where those plans have set us up to chase funding for specific projects, but we’re lacking the implementation step of getting those projects scoped and getting a project where we can start engineering on,” he said.

In recent years, both the city and county have crafted various plans to address growth, infrastructure needs and meet the future demands of transportation. Projects include the Highway 200 corridor in East Missoula and converting Front and Main streets in downtown Missoula to two-way traffic.

Other projects on the table include redeveloping the Brooks Street corridor, making changing to Higgins Avenue both north and south of the new bridge, and launching new 15-minute service on Mountain Line.

“We need to get it to the point where we can start getting it scoped and put it out for engineering and know exactly what it is we’re doing, what grant funding we’d apply for and what the scope of the project is, and we really don’t have that,” Wilson said.

“Having some staff capacity to work through those higher priority projects and getting them in the cue would be helpful for us, especially given the extent of federal funding that might be coming available over the next couple years.”

This week, the U.S. Senate passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that includes funding for a wide range of needs, from roads and bridges to public transit, airports, passenger rail and electric charging stations.

The package, if passed by the House and signed by the president, could free up funding for a wide range of local transportation needs. The city, along with other agencies, is working to position itself to move projects forward and compete for grants.

While infrastructure improvements can help spark economic development, the city has scrambled to compete when past funding became available for water and sewer projects in the ARPA package. Keene said it doesn’t want to get caught in the same position in the new round of infrastructure funding.

Rather, he said, it has an opportunity to capitalize off the funding.

“We scrambled to get our programs together and make applications for that (ARPA) money, which was competitive grants,” Keene said. “We should be preparing for that same thing with transportation. There will be more money available for grants, and we should be getting ourselves in a position for that as the MPO.”

Some members of the Transportation Technical Advisory Committee raised concerns that sharing the cost of the new position with the city, even for a few years, could possibly see city projects move to the front at the expense of planned projects across the metropolitan region.

“The long range plans are awesome, and it really is for the whole metro planning area,” said committee member Emily Brock. “We want to make sure it doesn’t just get sucked into the urban core when we’re seeing so much growth and pressure in transit, in the urban fringe and rural areas.”

The $35,000 funding request was approved as part of the Unified Planning Work Program, which includes a number of other goals in the coming fiscal year. They include progress on elements of the Highway 200 Master Plan, the Midtown Master Plan, and passenger rail.

Wilson said the MPO will also work to ensure the region’s transportation goals become a key element of area growth and development.

“We’re going to look at ways we can more formalize our transportation options and activities that aren’t just events and encouragements, but maybe building that into some regulatory audits, creating some recommendations around development and growth, and how we make transportation options programming inherent in all the work we do.”