MISSOULA — An ambitious plan to transform Brooks Street into a corridor suited for all forms of transportation could result in a center-running transit lane with 15 minute service and unlock new opportunities for housing and economic development.
But to get there, the project must win philosophical support from the Montana Department of Transportation and determine what right of way is available within the corridor.
If those efforts prove fruitful, the proposal could move toward design and send the city looking for federal funding.
“Twenty years from now, this corridor is going to be maxed out,” said MRA board member Ruth Reineking. “The time to address that is now, not 20 years from now.”
The Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s Board of Commissions on Thursday approved a $30,000 retainer fee to allow HDR Engineering to further examine the feasibility of the current proposal. As part of the contract, it will engage MDT as a partner and determine what right of way will be needed to accommodate a Bus Rapid Transit system, which other cities have adopted.
Tim Erickson, the project manager with HDR, said that while the Brooks Street corridor is capable of moving traffic, it will soon reach capacity. It already faces a number of challenges that hinder bike and pedestrian movement, impairs traffic and limits economic expansion, among other things.
In summary, the corridor serves more as a barrier than a Midtown asset.
“Heavy traffic volumes, numerous driveways, high crash rates and the lack of pedestrian accommodations really set the foundation for transforming the Brooks Street corridor,” Erickson said. “The four big issues that we need to address are connectivity, development nodes, safety and access, and making it a place where people want to be.”
New Mobility West awarded the city a grant in 2017 to help the visioning process forward. The resulting document suggested ways to reshape the corridor into a vibrant hub built around economic opportunities and transformational development.
The vision included housing and commercial services, walkable neighborhoods, nodes of activity and public transit. Mountain Line has long envisioned 15-minute service along the corridor, but its current design and lack of density have prevented it.
“To me, this was a really critical piece that came through the report,” said Annette Marchesseault of MRA. “Brooks has so much more potential. It’s not functioning to its community resource potential.”
While remedies for Brooks Street have been challenging, HDR and other project advocates reviewed four proposals and settled upon a vision for a cure that includes a center-running bus lane.
The dedicated lane would enable Mountain Line to launch 15-minute service without disrupting traffic through the heart of Midtown. The plan could see several transit stations placed along the corridor, along with work to improve the safety and flow of various intersections.
It would also reduce the distance a pedestrian must walk to cross the street, and it would provide safe passage to cyclists through a network of dedicated bike lanes.
A conditions assessment prepared by HDR found that fulfilling the plan could bring new investment to the district through expanding businesses and new development.
“There are 2,000 businesses along the corridor that employ 17,000 people. That’s a lot of people who could utilize this bus system if it’s running consistently,” said Reineking. “In that area, there’s also a population of 16,000 people, for which Brooks is a definite corridor for accessing the other side of the street. But right now it’s a barrier.”
While a concept is taking shape, the proposed center-running bus lane has not been publicly vetted, though the plan itself is based on public feedback gathered in 2016.
MDT must also come to the table as a partner in support of the plan, MRA said. The agency has seen significant staff changes in recent years, though former MDT employees had supported the plan, at least in concept.
Questions over right of way also linger.
“If it looks like we’re getting to a place where MDT is becoming a partner with us, then we’ll go the next step and start looking at the right-of-way issues,” said Marchesseault. “The long-term goal if we move forward with a concept like this is to look for a federal grant. To be competitive with that, we have to know it’s going to work.”
Missoula County and the city recently landed a $13 million federal grant to make improvements west of Reserve Street. Improvements also have been made to the Russell Street corridor and West Broadway, though Brooks Street has languished.
“It’s built on a foundation that was a very public process,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “But we’ve got a lot of roadblocks out there we still need to navigate. We need to determine if it’s feasible, if it’s publicly acceptable and how we’ll fund it.”