Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The City of Missoula hopes long-standing plans to finish widening Russell Street from two travel lanes to four will get a boost in the form of a federal grant.

Without the grant, the project may take decades to complete due to a lack of funding, city officials have said. But in hopes of expediting the project, the City Council on Monday night voted 8-1 to authorize the mayor to pursue a federal Multimodal Project Discretionary Grant to move the project up.

Aaron Wilson, the city’s transportation manager, said the Russell Street project could be finished by 2031 if the grant is awarded. Without it, the timeline is much longer.

“If we don’t get the grant, we’re on a much longer time frame,” he said. “We don’t currently have the funding to get the whole project done. Who knows how long until we can actually find the amount of funding we need to get it constructed.”

The push to widen and modernize Russell Street has been one of the city’s top transportation plans for years. The city and the Montana Department of Transportation completed Phase 1 in 2020, which included widening the road to five lanes from Dakota Street to East Broadway.

That phase of the project also included a new bridge over the Clark Fork River, and the entire project came in at around $50 million. The second phase, which calls for the same treatment of Russell Street south of Dakota Street to Mount Avenue, was estimated at $40 million at the time.

But since then, costs have continued to climb and the city alone can’t fund the project.

“There’s the benefits of getting the project done, but there’s also the financial benefit of getting these (federal) funds,” said Wilson. “We’re finding that Russell Street is an expensive project. It costs a lot of money to do roadway construction.”

In hopes of pushing the project up, the City Council in 2020 agreed to direct the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s allocation of urban funds to Russell Street for several years. The city receives around $1.8 million annually in urban funds and, if saved over a decade or more, they could help fill the funding gap to finish Phase 2.

Under that 2020 agreement, the Montana Department of Transportation also agreed to direct $31 million in Highway Funds toward the project. But Wilson said the cost of the project is growing faster than available funding and the city will continue to chase the project without federal support.

“What we’re funding, it’s tying up our federal funds for a really long time trying to get this project delivered,” Wilson said. “Every year it delays, it gets more expensive and we need to find more funding to fill the gaps. We’re in this endless cycle of trying to find the funding to get the project done.”

A Montana Department of Transportation map shows the phases of the project, though the dates are no longer accurate.
A Montana Department of Transportation map shows the phases of the project, though the dates are no longer valid.

“If we get grant funding, it frees up those other state program funds and the MPO program funds that we can use toward other projects,” he said. “These federal funds give us more flexibility in how we allocate our federal (urban) funding.”

Along with a wider and modernized Russell Street corridor, the project would also deliver protected bike lanes, pedestrian crossings, an improved intersection at Third Street and additional work on Broadway.

Russell Street was identified as a need in the city’s transportation plan in 1996 and the design was completed in partnership with several interest groups, including bicycle and pedestrian advocates.

“Right now, we’re just trying to get the money to do the project,” said council member Amber Sherrill, who voted to support the measure.

Council member Daniel Carlino voted against the measure on Monday night.

“Expanding Russell from two lanes to five lanes is a terrible idea. It’s a dangerous design,” he said. “We don’t need to consent as a city to MDT’s plans. We don’t need to consent to making a giant five-lane road like this through our town.”

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Gallery Credit: Ashley

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