Missoula, MT (KGVO-AM News) - At Wednesday’s Missoula City Council Public Works hearing, the vote was 10-2 to move forward with the plan to narrow Higgins Avenue by one lane in order to enhance safety for cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.

Starting off the testimony was Jeremy Keene, Director of Public Works Mobility for the City of Missoula, who said the urgency of his testimony dealt primarily with the issue of timing in order to obtain the funding necessary for the reconfiguration project.

A Strong Majority of the City Council Voted to Reduce Higgins to Three Lanes

“This is really the tail end of about a 20-month process, dating back to May of 2021, when we started to look at Higgins, and really 12 years of downtown planning,” began Keene. “What's driving the schedule and the need for a decision today is really an opportunity to seek funding. The bipartisan infrastructure bill is really an unprecedented opportunity to bring funding to our local projects, and we saw that this week with $9 million for South Avenue, and we think this is another opportunity that we could try to take advantage of.”

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Aaron Wilson, Infrastructure and Mobility Planning Manager for the City of Missoula said narrowing from four to three lanes will make Higgins a safer street.

“We're seeing 55 crashes a year, and that’s about one crash a week,” said Wilson. “One out of four of those crashes results in an injury. We think with this design we can reduce crashes by as much as 50 percent, make it easier to get to downtown parking, we can preserve the majority of the on-street parking spaces, and we can make it easier to walk, bike, and bus. The trade-off is about a minute of delay in the peak hour. We could make other choices. We can preserve the (four) lanes, but we'll still have congestion. There will still be times when downtown is congested, and it may affect our ability to grow in downtown if our only choice is to use cars.”

A Business Owner said it's 'One of the Worst Mistakes Missoula has Ever Made'

Opposing the plan was downtown business owner Scott Billadeau, who said the plan is so flawed that it defies description.

“The idea that going down to one lane is somehow going to make things more efficient is like Galileo trying to explain that the sun is revolving around Earth,” said Billadeau. “I am literally beside myself. Everyone I've talked to is literally scratching their head going, ‘how in the world could this be a good idea?’ I think this could potentially be one of the worst mistakes in the entire history of Missoula.”

Countering that comment was Missoula resident Jim Sayer, former director of Adventure Cycling, who said the plan to narrow Higgins from four to three lanes would definitely reduce accidents and enhance public safety.

The Two Primarily Conservative Council Members Voted 'No'

“Contrary to what you heard earlier, if you proceed with this project, what you will see is a major reduction in the number of car crashes, bike crashes, all those crashes,” said Sayre. “55 crashes now that have been reported, you will at least reduce that by 50 percent. This is evidenced all over the U.S. from Knoxville to Wheat Ridge, Colorado. You can find loads of studies, and every one of them shows that you’ll see a reduction in crashes.”

The city council voted 10-2 to continue forward with the Higgins Avenue reconfiguration project. The two ‘no’ votes came from Sandra Vasecka and John Contos.

According to City Councilor Gwen Jones, the proposed plan is that Higgins will go from four to three lanes from the Brooks/Higgins intersection up to the bridge. 

"Over the bridge, it will be two lanes because you don’t need a turn lane while crossing a bridge," Jones said. "Then, from the north side of the bridge to Broadway again it will go from four lanes down to three lanes. From Broadway to the X’s it is already three lanes with protected bike lanes from a project done 10 to 15 years ago."

Jones said one caveat is that the block from the Brooks and Higgins intersection to 6th (Hellgate High School) is a little different configuration because they are going to keep most of the parking. 

In general, other than the two lanes on the bridge, it will be three lanes all the way from Hellgate High School to the X’s. 

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