Engineers behind a plan to convert Front and Main streets to two-way traffic pitched their proposal to a largely receptive audience on Tuesday night, and pledged to present a final plan to the city in the coming months.
Mick Johnson, a representative of HDR Engineering, told the crowd of roughly 25 people that the conversion is feasible, and it would have negligible impacts on downtown Missoula services.
“We have reviewed all of this for the past 14 to 15 months,” Johnson said. “The level of services will not be negatively impacted by anything covered in this study.”
As proposed, the plan would convert Front and Main streets to two-way travel between Orange Street and Madison Avenue, effectively boosting business 13 percent and improving the flow of non-motorized travel.
On the west end of the project, Front Street would tie into Main Street, creating a cleaner intersection at Orange Street. On the east end, a traffic signal would be installed at Front and Madison, creating a new four-way stop.
“That connectivity will be important to the growth on that (east) side of town,” Johnson said of the Madison intersection. “With the university’s expansion east of Madison (at Missoula College), Front may become more important to get traffic back and forth to that area of the community.”
Aside from Missoula College on East Broadway, a student housing project is also planned on Front Street this year. Located just across from the Missoula Public Library, the project will include 500 beds and possibly ground-floor retail space.
Johnson said the estimated $3.5 million conversion project includes the milling and overlay of Front and Main, improved drainage, pedestrian lighting, signage and three new signalized intersections, among other improvements.
“It’s an attempt to revitalize the downtown community, improve safety for all kinds of travelers and improve livability,” Johnson said. “We’re seeing a lot of communities convert back to two-way streets.”
Audience members were largely supportive of the proposal, though they urged HDR and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency to allow more time for public comments.
The comment period was set to close Tuesday night, but MRA agreed to accept comments through 5 p.m. next Friday, despite HDR’s deadline to present a final plan next month.
Nick Caras, a developer who owns property on Orange and Front Street, expressed concerns that access to his business would be reduced by tying Front Street into Main Street.
But Johnson assuaged his concerns, saying the current plan is merely a draft. Comments submitted Tuesday night would help firm up the final document, which must survive a public comment period and achieve other steps before funding sources are sought.
“Once we get into the design phase – we’ve got to figure out how we’ll fund any of this – there will be a whole other level of conversation that will take place,” said Ellen Buchanan, director of MRA. “What happens on state-route intersections will require approval by the Montana Department of Transportation.”
When asked to elaborate on funding, Buchanan added that many sources are available, both federal and local. The plan has already been approved by the Missoula City Council and was designated as a top priority in the 2009 downtown master plan.
“Realistically, if we’re going to make this conversion downtown, it’s going to require multiple funding sources,” said Buchanan. “Some will be outside money, some will be local money.”
One woman said the conversion would make it easier for visitors and locals to find their way around the city’s core. Only one man spoke in direct opposition to the idea, calling the project a waste of funds.
“It’s fine the way it is,” he said.