Those who traverse Missoula’s streets in their private automobile know that timing is everything – ending up at the wrong intersection at the wrong time of day could add 10 to 20 minutes to a daily commute.
Compared to Seattle or Denver, such delays are minuscule. But with 28,000 new residents expected to land in Missoula over the next two decades, and with 9,000 new homes needed to accommodate them, today’s short delays could become a real issue in the years ahead.
“Trying to address future congestion is something we’ve talked about internally,” said Ed Toavs, director of the Montana Department of Transportation’s Missoula District. “But with Missoula constrained the way it is, finding unique community solutions will be important.”
MDT has no plans for a Missoula bypass – something that’s often mentioned as a solution to future congestion. Toavs placed the cost of a bypass at more than $100 million, and said a project of that scope would severely impact rivers, wetlands and non-urban areas in the Missoula Valley.
With a bypass off the table, MDT and local planners are focusing their efforts on other ways to reduce future congestion. Doing so may require thinking outside the box.
“It’s why the city is trying to push transit,” Toavs said. “The city’s growth is going to be up and not necessarily out because of the physical constraints of the valley.”
MDT is spending tens of millions of dollars to construct a bypass in Kalispell, but Toavs said the Flathead Valley holds an advantage in that it lacks the tight confines of the Missoula Valley.
Yet the geography that limits growth in the Missoula Valley may play in the city’s favor, resulting in a well-planned community built around neighborhood hubs and a multi-model concept of transportation.
“Not only is there the transit and bicycle and pedestrian element, but the efficiency of the signalized system is also a critical piece to that,” Toavs said. “If you’re physically constrained where you can’t add any more lanes, the only thing that’s left is to improve is efficiency.”
MDT has plans to improve efficiency in the coming years, starting with a signalized system that’s smart enough to adjust in real-time to traffic volumes. That, according to MDT engineer Shane Stack, could reduce wait times at troubled intersections and prompt traffic to move smoothly.
Yet, while improved efficiency and smarter growth combine to lessen the impacts of increasing traffic, an expanded transportation system will also remain part of the equation. That’s likely to start in 2017 with the widening of Russell Street from two lanes to four.
“When Russell finally gets built from Broadway to Mount (Avenue), now you’ll have a brand-new four-lane roadway all the way to Brooks,” said Stack. “We’re hoping that will alleviate some of the congestion on Reserve Street.”
But over time, even a four-lane Russell Street likely will fill with traffic. Volumes on Reserve aren’t expected to diminish.
“At that point you have to ask yourself, 'If you can’t build a bypass because it becomes unfundable, what would it take to turn Reserve into six lanes?' ” said Toavs. “It’s not an easy question to answer.”
When Reserve was built, Toavs said, the utilities – including water, sewer and storm drains – were set in place. Expanding Reserve to six lanes would require a massive effort to relocate those utilities, costing an equally large amount of funding.
Toavs said the right-of-way along Reserve is also tight, which brings additional costs to purchase the required encroachments. The expense of widening major intersections, not to mention the bridge over Montana Rail Link's tracks, wouldn’t come cheap.
“It’s not that they can’t be done, but they do cost some money,” Toavs said. “Those are probably the ways you would try to deal with the growth. In my career, I don’t know that the bypass will get a lot of traction.”
Small projects currently fill Missoula’s transportation hopper. Next summer, MDT plans to chip seal 39th Street, and safety improvements are planned for U.S. Highway 93 between Missoula and Lolo.
Talks are also underway to place a median on Reserve Street from River Road to Mullan Road to prevent crossover collisions. A traffic signal is planned on Montana Highway 200 near Bonner, and Mullan Road will see improvements sometime after 2020.
Plans for Brooks Street also have been designed. The Missoula Redevelopment Agency intends to enhance the corridor by adding medians, lighting and landscaping, along with a traffic signal at Brooks and McDonald Avenue.
With transit identified as a key priority in the city’s growth plan, Mountain Line also intends to launch Bolt! service on Brooks in 2017, with buses running on 15-minute intervals.
While supportive of expanded transit, MDT has concerns with buses stopping in the lane of traffic – something Mountain Line has requested. Toavs said the agency is willing to work with Mountain Line, though it’s encouraging buses to use pullouts where possible.
“We didn’t have any history on the issue statewide,” Toavs said. “What we’ve told them, if there’s room available in the right-of-way, there should be a pullout. It’s a safer overall configuration, especially on a dense corridor like Brooks.”
The right-of-way needed for pullouts may not be available at all locations along Brooks, however. Toavs said the Midtown area presents unique challenges that will require unique solutions, including reconfigured intersections.
“The tricky part about Brooks is that starting at Paxson south to Reserve, it was obviously built at a later date and to wider standards,” Toavs said. “When you get to Paxson heading into town, it’s very narrow.”
In some areas, the right-of-way along Brooks is so narrow that MDT doesn’t own the sidewalks. Toavs said expanding the roadway would be unfeasible due to the cost of acquiring the needed property.
“Brooks is a tricky corridor because it carries so much traffic, and we don’t envision that ever going away,” Toavs said. “But I don’t see it ever being feasible to expand Brooks. We’d have to acquire so many properties at such a high expense, and it would be really detrimental to that corridor.”
Like the solutions elsewhere in town, Toavs said, enhancing Brooks will likely come down to mixing and matching other transportation options.
“There are people in the community who do have some good ideas, and that’s a nice place to start,” Toavs said. “To really improve multi-model transportation, it’s going to take more than Brooks as a linear corridor.”