Russell Street redo

An artist's rendering of a new bridge planned for Russell Street. The project would expand the bridge and Russell from two lanes to five, and include raised bike lanes and sidewalks.

From new bridges to noise-reduction walls to roundabouts to the removal of dangerous piers in the Blackfoot River, a total of $136 million in transportation infrastructure upgrades is planned for the Missoula area over the next several years.

Shane Stack, an engineer with the Montana Department of Transportation’s Missoula Division, gave an overview of all the projects currently scheduled for the Missoula area over the next four years. Stack spoke at Monday's City Club Missoula gathering.

They include a $28 million reconstruction of Russell Street, including the replacement of the old bridge with a wider span. Work on that project is expected to commence this spring. Plans are also in the works to replace both Interstate 90 bridges over the Blackfoot River in Bonner – a $22 million endeavor. (See related story).

The Russell Street redesign actually consists of two projects. The work from the intersection of Broadway and Russell to Idaho Street will cost about $20.7 million. Engineers are trying to acquire private land to reconstruct Russell from Idaho to the intersection of Dakota Street as well. That part of the project would include putting a stoplight at the intersection of Wyoming and Russell and moving the Milwaukee Trail bike/pedestrian crossing underground.

Stack said that MDT has to acquire a total of 35 parcels of private land to move the project forward, and so far only about 16 to 17 have been purchased. The work on the bridge is expected to begin regardless of private land purchases. It’s scheduled to be completed in 2019.

Stack also said that a major reconstruction of the Van Buren interchange at Interstate 90 is scheduled to start in 2018 for an estimated cost of $7 million. That project includes a “noise wall” – meant to reduce the amount of traffic noise heard by Rattlesnake neighborhood residents – that will be 15 to 18 feet high. There will also be two large roundabouts to keep the flow of traffic steady.

Major I-90 resurfacing projects are scheduled for Missoula, Frenchtown and Huson. Work to widen the Madison Street Bridge is already underway, and the MDT is planning on widening the Higgins Avenue Bridge – including adding a 13-foot-wide bike/pedestrian path on the downstream side of the bridge and a 12-foot-wide path on the upstream side – in 2020.

“A lot of good investment is happening in Missoula transportation infrastructure,” Stack told the crowd.

He said that Montana faces some tough decisions in the coming years, because the federal gas tax hasn’t been able to provide enough money to fix infrastructure in the state. Increasingly, property taxes have been used in recent years to fill the gap.

“Before 2012 the gas tax was funding transportation infrastructure, but now when you pay income taxes and property taxes, you are paying for more of the road system,” he said.

Jeremy Keene, an engineer at WGM Group in Missoula, said that a review by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2013 found that much of Montana’s infrastructure is in bad shape. For example, most of the 180 public wastewater systems are 75 to 100 years old, and it would take up to $900 million to bring them up to modern standards.

There are 5,300 miles of public water pipes in Montana, and it would take between $12 billion and $15 billion to bring them up to standards or replace them. Right now, the state is only funding about $165 million a year in water and wastewater upgrades.

There are 75,000 miles of public roads in Montana, and about 46 percent are in poor or mediocre condition. It would take an estimated $14.8 billion to repair them, and Montana is covering only a quarter of that cost right now.

Keene said that historically, Montana has gotten a federal return of between $1.20 and $1.30 from the federal government for every dollar it sends in taxes. However, states that aren’t getting as much have complained, and the budgeting process is getting more scrutiny every year.

“It’s been a pretty good deal for us, but we may not see our same share of federal funding in the future,” Keene said. He said that Tax Increment Financing is an effective way for communities to encourage private investment to make infrastructure upgrades. For example, $7 million in TIF funds for a new road in the Southgate Mall area is expected to spur $71 million in private investment.

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