MISSOULA - Downtown Missoula — and all along the Hip Strip is growing -- just like the rest of the city.
Local partners are now hoping to redesign the area.
Higgins Avenue — from the Hip Strip to downtown — is going through growing pains, and as the city grows, problems like traffic and accidents and pedestrians getting hurt will only continue.
That’s why city and state agencies are coming together to redesign the strip.
There has been a lot of chatter about three proposed plans for the Higgins Corridor.
The plans have been building for a year, as agencies in Missoula collaborate with the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) work to try and make Higgins from Brooks Street to West Broadway safer.
Missoula Infrastructure and Mobility Planning manager Aaron Wilson has the task of making the road safe, while not exacerbating traffic slowdowns.
The Missoula Senior Center hosted an open house on Friday where Wilson was able to hear public comment.
“We want to make sure it is safe and accessible for everyone, regardless of the mode that they are choosing, Wilson explained. “So, we want to make sure that it’s accessible for driving, for biking, walking, and transit.”
Watching the behavior along the road during the evening rush, we saw cyclists riding on sidewalks, cars parked in bike lanes, and drivers not giving much room at crosswalks.
Peter Drakos — who uses a wheelchair to get around town — said he has a lot of anxiety crossing Higgins during busy hours, “that is just impossible to deal with when you’re mobility impaired.”
The renderings show the bold changes to the Hip Strip.
A popular offering is to add elevated bike lanes to either side of the street, giving riders some breathing room while traffic would be reduced by one lane.
Another plan is to create designated bus lanes, encouraging travelers to opt for car alternatives.
The protected bike lanes are similar to what has already been built on Higgins north of Broadway, and Missoula officials say the change could reduce traffic accidents by 29%.
Wilson said the lane reduction could help traffic because it would be easier to turn onto side streets.
“People are trying to get to a place on Higgins and if you can’t turn left it’s just funneling you straight through, you’re going around the block, it’s actually creating more traffic than if people can just make the left turn and get where they are going.” - Missoula Infrastructure and Mobility Planning manager Aaron Wilson
Kristen Sackett who commutes downtown said her greatest fear while driving is hurting a cyclist.
"It's so crowded, there are so many cars, it's -- I'm scared to death anytime I see a bike. Like, I am just so worried that I am going to hit them, or they can lose their balance and fall into you. There's no wiggle room whatsoever."
There is still some wiggle room with the final plan though. Wilson said they are open to public comment online and will continue to weigh the pros and cons of each plan.
Wilson said that for now, the city will continue to grow, and Higgins needs to grow with it.
"I think there's changes that are going to happen in Missoula and we're hoping to provide a transportation facility that accommodates that — whatever that looks like.
The final plan is expected to be submitted to Missoula City Council sometime in late summer.
Additional information about the proposed Higgins Corridor changes can be found at https://www.engagemissoula.com/higgins-avenue-corridor-plan.