MISSOULA — As Congress debates the future of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the City of Missoula and its transportation planners are working to push a number of projects forward, hoping they’ll compete for funding when the time comes.
From a rapid bus transit system on Brooks Street to the potential redesign of Higgins Avenue, the transportation plans are being reviewed for feasibility and future design, and transit will play a key role in their future.
“There are limited places for us to grow and build out new street networks. That forces us to be as efficient as possible with the infrastructure we have,” said Arron Wilson, the city’s transportation planner. “It informs all of our decision making related to building our transit networks and increasing multi-modal travel.”
Transit could emerge as a winner if the infrastructure bill passes Congress – something that could happen this week. Mountain Line could benefit, expanding both its routes and hours of operation. It could also influence transportation plans for several corridors within the city.
“There should be funding, assuming everything passes, and there’s a real emphasis on projects like what we’ve been working on in the Brooks Street corridor, which would allow us to run higher frequency transit down Brooks.”
Conceptual plans of a rapid bus transit system on Brooks Street.
The Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA) in June freed up funding to help determine the feasibility and design of a transit-oriented corridor running the length of Brooks Street. As proposed, the rapid bus transit system would use a center-running lane, enabling Mountain Line to launch 15-minute service without disrupting traffic in the heart of Midtown.
Ellen Buchanan, director of MRA, said the city’s consultants at HDR are working on identifying the project’s right-of-way requirements while partnering with the Montana Department of Transportation to ensure it’s behind the effort.
The city also is awaiting word on whether a planning grant will be approved. The funding approved by MRA is contingent upon the grant.
“If we receive that grant, we will be in a position to have HDR begin detailed design, initiate right-of-way acquisition discussions and work even more closely with MDT to assure their approval of the design,” Buchanan said. “We expect to hear about the grant around mid-November.”
As plans for Brooks Street move forward, the city also is exploring the future of Higgins Avenue from Broadway to Brooks. The outcome could be timed with the full reopening of the new Beartracks Bridge.
Wilson described the effort as an extension of future plans for Brooks, saying Higgins will serve as a bridge between the downtown and Midtown districts – each connected by the future rapid transit bus system.
“For the Brooks Street rapid transit system to work, we have to have a good connection into downtown, and Higgins is the most logical place for that to go,” said Wilson. “That’s one of the things we’re working on Higgins is that connection to the Brooks Street corridor and the connection that extends from downtown to the south side of town.”
One conceptual plan for Higgins Avenue as detailed in the Downtown Master Plan.
The city approved a $200,000 contract with Kittelson and Associates in April to explore the future of Higgins Avenue in a way that accommodates a wider range of needs.
Transportation studies dating back to the 1960s suggest the number of vehicles crossing the Higgins Avenue bridge hasn’t changed much in more than 50 years. Current traffic counts place the daily number of vehicles at around 16,000.
“We’re working on alternatives,” said Wilson. “My hope is that we’ll have those to bring back to the public at the end of October or some time in November.”
The third piece of the equation may be the conversion of Front and Main streets back to two-way traffic. MRA in April approved a $450,000 design and engineering contract that will get the conversion “shovel ready” if federal funding is released.
That project is estimated at $4.5 million and has been on the books for years.
“If we’re doing the work on Front and Main, it should interface with Higgins,” said Wilson. “Having all these plans, those three in particular, on the same general timeline is key because we can design them together instead of one at a time.”
Wilson said the plans, once finished, could also serve as economic drivers. Already, several large projects are either planned or under construction along the corridor stretching down Brooks Street and Higgins Avenue.
“What we see in other cities, projects of that scale show you’re committed to that corridor and that you have a plan in place,” Wilson said. “It makes it much easier for development to come in behind it.”