MRA approves funding to convert downtown streets to two-way traffic | Local News

A long-planned but highly complex effort to convert two of downtown Missoula’s main streets from one-way to two-way traffic received a big boost in public funding Thursday.

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to commit $233,563 in tax increment funding for design work to determine how to convert Front and Main streets to two-way traffic. Essentially, the money is for a “scope change and amendment” to the original contract the city signed with a local engineering firm.

The entire project is expected to cost between $8 million and $9 million, and some of the planning funds will come from three urban renewal districts that encompass parts of downtown. The agency has the discretion to use new property taxes in neighborhoods generated by new developments. To pay for the entire project, the city will need to use a combination of sources, including federal infrastructure funds. No exact timeline for the project is yet in place as the designs are not complete.

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“Converting Front and Main streets to two-way traffic has been a top priority in both downtown master plans,” MRA Director Ellen Buchanan explained. emphasis on bicycles, pedestrians and public transport.

Protected bike lanes on the northern part of Higgins were a direct result of recommendations from the 2009 plan, she noted.

Buchanan said the community has wanted to convert the streets for decades. One-way streets are confusing for drivers and pedestrians, especially non-locals, and cause accidents and many safety issues.

“Frankly, one-way streets were designed in the days of urban flight when people worked downtown and the purpose of life was to get out of downtown as fast as possible at 5 a.m. afternoon, so you did one-way streets,” Buchanan said. “Since then, cities have been wrestling with how to return to two-way streets and how they work best.”

Buchanan said it’s complicated for planners to find a way to get enough bike lanes on streets without eliminating parking, which most downtown businesses won’t tolerate.

She said a good compromise so far has been to put protected one-way bike lanes on Front and Main, so cyclists only travel in one direction on each street. There is no perfect solution to accommodate bicycle traffic, parking, drivers and businesses, she noted.

“It’s been a challenge because like every street out there, we’re trying to fit a size 10 foot into a size 5 shoe and somebody’s going to lose a toe somewhere,” Buchanan said. “So we keep having these ‘face ’em’ meetings where everyone sits down and puts their interests on the table and we find where the trade-offs are and we’ve done that on this project.”

The change in scope approved on Thursday means that the initial plans have been modified. From now on, the protected bike lanes will no longer be on Broadway, but on Front and Main streets.

Buchanan said city officials are planning major redevelopment of the waterfront triangle in the future, so they need to make sure roads in this area can handle additional traffic.

“We now have a different group of developers who seem to have a pretty strong interest in developing the property,” Buchanan explained.

There will be a virtual traffic simulation produced to show all the different interested parties how things will work, which will be posted on in the near future.

Conversion project planners must also ensure that there is adequate planning for residents of the Kiwanis Park neighborhood, as a road leading to this neighborhood is private property and the owner is unwilling to to change.

Buchanan said a plan to redesign Higgins Avenue south of the river is underway with lots of public comment. Most people want to have three lanes of traffic with protected bike lanes while maintaining on-street parking. Mountain Line, Missoula’s free public bus system, also concentrates transit on Front Street and has several stops in the area.

“It is exciting to realize that the Front and Main project has truly become the backbone that connects several important downtown projects in a cohesive way,” Buchanan wrote in a memo to the agency’s board. “The increased reach needed to get this done right doesn’t come cheap, but the staff is convinced it’s necessary if we are to maximize our downtown investments.”

She said the current plan should improve traffic flow downtown.

“The revised project now provides excellent east/west cycling facilities (currently non-existent), significant investment in the eastern part of the city center which saw limited investment when it was part of Urban Renewal District I, facilitation waterfront triangle development and improvements that benefit our waterfront parks and trails,” she wrote.

The Montana Department of Transportation is also reviewing the plans. Buchanan also said a traffic light may need to be installed at the intersection of Madison and Front streets.

“I think there are a lot of good things in this application and I’m glad we’re adding them to the scope of service here,” said board member Ruth Reineking.

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