A dream to make biking safer between Missoula and Lolo just won a $4.5 million grant to become a reality.
“We’re elated to think this trail is going to be completed in our biking lifetimes,” said Ethel MacDonald, who with Jean Belangie-Nye of Bike-Walk Alliance for Missoula helped organize support for the project. “I can hardly wait to get on my bike and ride it.“
The federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program awarded the money on Tuesday. It will be matched by a $400,000 contribution from the city of Missoula, $400,000 from Missoula County and $100,000 from the Montana Department of Transportation for a total budget of $5.48 million.
The eight-mile route will parallel U.S. Highway 93 between Missoula and Lolo, but with much more comfort for two-wheeled riders. Adventure Cycling executive director Jim Sayer said the path would solve a major problem.
“We laid out the 4,200-mile Trans-America route from Virginia to Oregon, and riders tell us regularly one of the worst parts is the eight miles from Lolo to Missoula on Highway 93,” Sayer said on Tuesday. “After being on quiet country roads most of the way across America, you come on this high-speed road with curves where you’re right between fog line and the barriers.”
The Trans-America route runs up the Bitterroot Valley to Lolo and then west along Highway 12 to Lolo Pass, but many cross-country cyclists detour north to visit Missoula. They may also be heading for the Lewis and Clark National Bike Route that leaves Missoula on Interstate 90 or the Great Parks National Bike Route that passes Glacier National Park to Jasper, Alberta.
The Lolo-Missoula connection would also build on the 38-mile Bitterroot Path between Lolo and Hamilton, as well as the extensive network of paths within Missoula itself.
Sayer said the grant application was remarkably competitive, with Missoula’s proposal up against 568 others requesting a total $9 billion in projects. The grant pool had just $516 million to distribute.
“A big driver was the economic feasibility of a project this size going through the terrain you experience between Missoula and Lolo,” said Chris Anderson, project manager for DJ&A Architects, which authored the grant proposal. “One criteria was we needed to find a trail alternative in existing public right-of-way. We didn’t want to go through acquisition for this project.”
The current proposal would send cyclists along the west side of Highway 93 from Missoula to Blue Mountain Road, where they would cross to the east side. A trail from there would follow the outside edge of the highway where it curves tight against hillsides above the Bitterroot River and railroad lines. Then it would connect with the Bitterroot Path at Ridgeway Drive in Lolo.
All this must go through environmental analysis and project bidding before any dirt can get shoveled. But that could happen as soon as the 2014 construction season.