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Missoula’s new transportation plan to consider the past, look to the future

Posted at 9:10 AM, Mar 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-05 16:23:36-05

MISSOULA — With a federally required update to Missoula’s long-range transportation plan underway, a team of national consultants on Wednesday said the city’s efforts to diversify its transportation grid were on the right track, though additional opportunities exist.

Filling in key gaps, incorporating new technology and planning for a diverse transportation future stand among them, according to Jennifer Wieland with Nelson-Nygaard.

“There have been great investments in non-motorized and active transportation infrastructure – going fare free was a huge boon,” she said. “At the same time, there is a challenge of having excess capacity on some of your roadways, and having some space where you can really think about moving people as opposed to just moving vehicles.”

Consultants in recent months have made observations around the city, noting its successes and challenges, its growth trends and values around land use.

Wieland described the last transportation plan – updated in 2016 – as a good base of reference. The forthcoming process will help determine whether Missoula’s existing transportation goals should be redeveloped or built upon.

“Sometimes when we start an update for a long-range plan, there’s a lot of rethinking to do,” she said. “You all have clearly articulated the goals and mobility in the community. You have a travel demand model that incorporates active transportation, which is something that a lot of regions don’t have.”

From rideshare to electric vehicles, transportation planning in 2020 continues to evolve. Wieland said the update must consider technological changes that have taken place or are underway. New modes of transportation have arrived, she said, and the power of the smart phone has proven “revolutionary.”

Exploring other ways to leverage revenue will also be included, she said.

“In a place like Missoula that’s growing, there’s an opportunity to really leverage private-sector investment in transportation and mobility,” she said. “There’s a lot of conversation happening around density and affordability, ways to invest and what transportation choices mean to people.”

Since 2010, Missoula’s population has grown 5.7%. With a focus on inward growth and urban development, the 2016 plan set an ambitious goal of reducing single-occupancy vehicle trips to 39% by 2045.

But the number currently stands at 71%. While it continues to fall as new options are added to the mix and attitudes change, Wieland said that further progress will require additional work and more options.

“More people means more trips, and we need to provide different ways for people to make those trips,” she said. “One of the things we see with the long-range plan is to support existing industry but also be forward thinking and enhance economic competitiveness, and be thoughtful about building a transit system that offers affordable options.”

Nelson-Nygard and a team of local partners, including Big Sky Public Relations and the Metropolitan Planning Organization, have already started their efforts to engage the public in the process, one that will continue over the coming months.

This week, the project will include a look back on transportation planning, from passenger rail service to street cars. The later has been identified as a goal in the city’s new downtown master plan.

“We’re long-range planners and we’re often just looking into the future at what’s coming,” said Aaron Wilson, the city’s transportation planner. “But looking at the history, the decisions we’ve made and the things that have happened have really shaped where we are at today. We’ll use that as a launching point in making decisions about the future.”

Glancing into the process, members of the City Council expressed anticipation for the plan’s update, calling it an opportunity to identify future opportunities and address lingering deficiencies.

“It’s important to look at our past in order to propel ourself into the future,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “With you’re approach to value-based decisions, it’s going to be important for our community to allocate the limited funds we have and put it to good use in our community.”

Council member Heidi West also encouraged planners to consider gender equity in the plan. Citing travel counts at different locations, she believes the current transportation system is skewed toward men.

She encouraged planners to consider a wider range of users.

“Something that works for a women with a stroller also works for folks that have mobility issues,” West said. “It’s important to engage some of the users with the highest barriers in this process, because what works for them works for everyone.”

With a potential 2-cent gas tax under consideration for the June ballot, several elected officials have noted the cost of maintaining or building the local transportation network.

As federal funding allocated for such work continues to diminish, making best use of available funds should be central to the updated plan, said council member Jordan Hess.

“If anything comes out of this plan, it’s how we prioritize our capital improvement plan in the city – how we make this document incredibly useful from an implementation standpoint,” Hess said. “That would be an incredibly useful thing for this council.”