Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Plans to alter a number of downtown streets and improve riverfront access will receive a $24 million boost from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Sen. Jon Tester announced on Thursday.

The city applied for the federal grant hoping to fund the downtown work, which has been planned now for several years. It includes the conversion of Front and Main streets to two-way traffic and adding bike and turn lanes on Higgins Avenue.

The announcement came as welcome news to city officials.

“It will do a lot of really important infrastructure redevelopment work downtown,” said Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess. “It'll regrade Higgins Avenue, update and modernize all our streetlights downtown, and do trail infrastructure. There's something in that grant for everyone.”

The funding will enable the city to convert Higgins from four lanes to three from Sixth Street to Broadway, including the newly opened Beartracks Bridge. Doing so will result in dedicated left-turn lanes and bicycle paths, both of which are lacking in the corridor.

The funding will also fuel improved trail access to Caras Park and the downtown waterfront, along with the conversion of Front and Main streets to two-way traffic. That project is likely to extend from Orange Street to Van Buren and includes improvements to several key intersections.

Hess said portions of the project could be challenging given the district's old utility lines and historic basements, which now lie below the downtown sidewalks.

“A lot of Higgins still has the original streetcar tracks under the pavement,” Hess said. “I think we'll encounter some really interesting things. I think it'll be an exciting opportunity for our downtown.”

Projects planned for years

In his letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Tester cited Missoula's goals to increase other modes of transportation, particularly near the downtown core. The work will also improve safety by providing dedicated facilities for all users while supporting higher density infill and housing.

“By investing in local infrastructure, we are supporting Montana communities and improving our economy,” said Tester. “Missoulians crafted this proposal and now have a great opportunity to improve their downtown by bringing local businesses and other stakeholders together to finish the job.”

Plans for Higgins Avenue south of the Clark Fork River.
Plans for Higgins Avenue south of the Clark Fork River.

Aspects of the downtown project have been planned for years. The Missoula Redevelopment Agency in 2015 funded a feasibility study that found that two-way traffic on Front and Main would create more parking, improve the flow of non-motorized travel and boost the downtown economy by as much as 13%.

The agency has also funded much of the engineering and design work, placing the project close to being fully designed.

“It's something MRA has been working on for decades,” MRA Director Ellen Buchanan said Thursday. “We actually went ahead when the infrastructure grant funding was approved by the federal government, we decided to position Front and Main to be shovel ready if that was one of the requirements to access this federal money.”

The Higgins project is slightly behind in terms of design and engineering plans, but Buchanan said the concept is set. It also has been approved by the Missoula City Council.

“Now the real work starts,” said Hess. “The public can expect a robust process moving forward.”

The city and county of Missoula in 2019 received a $13 million federal RAISE Grant to fund infrastructure in the greater Mullan area to help guide and support growth. The city cut the ribbon on the first phase of the project last week.

“That's lightning speed for a federally funded transportation project,” said Hess. “We're really good at delivering transportation projects and we're good at doing it quickly.”

Tester's Letter of Support

Dear Secretary Buttigieg:

I write in support of the application for the City of Missoula’s Downtown Safety & Multimodal Connectivity RAISE grant application. This request would enable the city to increase safety and connectivity in and around downtown.

Missoula is hoping to adapt its downtown area infrastructure to fit the changing needs of the community. The plan addresses safety and connectivity issues in the downtown area. On the Higgins Avenue corridor, a four to three lane conversion will separate bicyclist and motor vehicles, and create dedicated left-turn lanes. Front and Main Streets will be changed to two-way streets to address safety and circulation issues in the downtown area. This project will fund riverfront trail access from Front and Main and widen the trail. Additionally, an ADA ramp will increase accessibility from the Higgins Bridge to Caras Park.

This project will bring Missoula closer to its multi-modal mode-share goals, which address environmental goals and mitigate the transportation impacts of growth. It will also improve safety by providing dedicated facilities to all road users, and support higher density infill and affordable housing.

The City of Missoula’s Downtown Safety & Multimodal Connectivity project anticipates updating the downtown transportation network and will make a considerable difference to the region’s transportation safety and economic development.

Thank you for your attention to this application. If I can provide any additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me. I would also appreciate you informing my office of the eventual decision on this application.

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