Malfunction Junction about to get controversial makeover

Malfunction Junction about to get controversial makeover

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When the city of Missoula sent out a press release recently saying a contractor had been tapped to rebuild Malfunction Junction, it was a non-event.

No one responded. It was almost as if no one believed it, said Joe Oliphant, the project coordinator in the city's Public Works Department who sent out the notice.

"A lot of people think this project has died," he said. "It's just been a long haul."

Long, yes: 11 years. Haul, yes: The Brooks/South/Russell Intersection Improvement Project has been the subject of more than 30 public meetings, two major public hearings with more than 48 comments at each, two major resolutions adopted by the City Council and three other major actions of government.

Through those 11 years, people have shouted about it, shoved each other over it and said it would ruin their lives and their livelihoods.

"We have had numerous, numerous actions on this," Oliphant said. "We get so excited. Now we have to get in construction mode."

Public Works director Bruce Bender celebrated by taking the environmental assessment for the project off his desk and storing it in his filing cabinet. He used it so much during the past seven years, there was no point ever to put it away.

We have a contractor - L.S. Jensen, he can say now. It's really going to happen.

"Here you have this Malfunction Junction," Bender said, "that's going to go from the worst to the best."

The point of the project is to fix the malfunction in the six-legged junction in the middle of Missoula - long waits in backed-up traffic at the lights for drivers, dangerous conditions for walkers and bicyclists and poor air quality in the area. Years of violating federal standards for carbon monoxide pollution led to the project.

The centerpiece of the plan is the realignment of South Avenue. Traffic approaching Malfunction Junction going both ways will be redirected away from the intersection. The junction will be reduced to four legs with fewer cars trying to squeeze through it.

"What we're doing with this project is we're redistributing the traffic on the existing streets instead of sending it all through one intersection," said engineer Jeremy Keene, who works for WGM Group, which is helping the city with construction oversight.

Here's what will happen on the ground: If you're driving west on South Avenue approaching the Western Montana Fairgrounds, you'll be diverted north at Holborn up to Sussex Avenue and enter Brooks Street at a new traffic signal in front of Trempers Shopping Center.

If you're driving east on South Avenue toward the junction, you'll be diverted south at a new light at Garfield, drive south to Fairview and get onto Brooks at the light at Fairview and Brooks.

The sections of South Avenue that two-way traffic has been diverted away from - between Garfield and Holborn - will be local-access only.

The fix will reverberate blocks away. For instance, the intersection of South Avenue and Johnson will get improvements and a new traffic light. The hope is that drivers who are just trying to get to the north side of town will turn north there and use North Avenue to connect to Russell Street. There will be a traffic light at North and Russell, with other improvements to the intersection.

The idea, brought forward by an out-of-town traffic consultant around 1995, is based on the fact that South Avenue is the heart of the malfunction at the junction. While it carries only 25 percent of the traffic approaching the intersection, its cars use half of the traffic light changes, which translates into 50 percent of the wait time.

That's because a high percentage of South Avenue traffic is turning, rather than going straight through, Bender said. Thirty percent goes straight, while 70 percent turns onto Brooks and Russell Streets. Fifty percent of those turns are from South onto Brooks, which traffic will still be able to do in a streamlined way.

"South Avenue wants to get to Brooks," Bender said. "Brooks and Russell are waiting for South Avenue."

Computer traffic modeling shows that the intersection, which sees about 58,000 vehicles a day, will work, the traffic specialists say.

Based on a model showing one peak hour of traffic in the year 2022, the remodel will reduce multiple waits at red lights by 81 percent, engineer Keene said. The average individual delay will be reduced by 60 percent, from 51 seconds to 31 seconds, and the total network delay will be reduced by 45 percent. In one hour, 176 fewer gallons of fuel will be consumed, and 29 percent less carbon monoxide, a pollutant, will be produced.

"What it does is shrink up the intersection," Bender said. "Now you've got a really simple, two-street, four-leg intersection, with a green light for Brooks and a green light for Russell."

Bender has the general sense that most Malfunction Junction-area business people are happier with the final solution than they have been with past proposals.

But no amount of study or computer modeling can sell the remake to some people, including area businessman and property owner Bill Nooney Sr. Nooney is president of Hi-Noon Petroleum Co. and owns property near the junction. He has also been on the board of the Western Montana Fair for 40-some years. And he has been involved in years of meetings about the intersection.

"Common sense shows it just won't work," he said. "I can't see it, and I don't care what their traffic thing says. You can't dump that many cars off. It's not going to work."

History made the junction what it is, he said, going way back to ancient trails used by Indians traveling to the Bitterroot Valley.

"There's no easy solution," he said. "The best thing is to leave it alone."

Nooney owns the property where a Burger King operated for 15 or 20 years at the corner of South Avenue and Brooks Street. The business left, he said, once its owners saw what would happen in the junction makeover. Seventy-five percent of the business there was at the drive-up window. Once Malfunction changes to a two-light signal, it will be "solid traffic," he said.

"I'm stuck with the property," he said. "I've had it for sale, and I can't even get anybody to look at it. Š There is just no way this is going to enhance property values."

And just wait until summer, Nooney said.

"Tourists are also going to be confused," he said. "They're not going to know they have to turn left to go right."

And it's very unclear what will happen during the Western Montana Fair in August, he said, when traffic cannot turn left onto South Avenue out of the fairgrounds.

Earl Pruyn, longtime Missoula veterinarian, businessman, farmer and rancher, thinks it's unwise to impede South Avenue, the main east-west carrier of traffic across the city. And now, from the modern perspective, Malfunction isn't so bad, he said. Just look at Reserve Street and Mullan Road. That's bad.

"It's a very good-functioning intersection," he said. "A complicated intersection, but good-functioning. It's very foolish to do anything to it."

Pruyn's observation, much of it from his veterinary clinic near the intersection, is that the problem in the area is traffic trying to get from the southwest to the northeast of Missoula and Interstate 90 - for instance, logging trucks coming from the Bitterroot going to I-90 and Bonner. Reserve Street has become so clogged with local traffic that fewer vehicles use it to get around the city.

"My answer is we should funnel these cars onto open freeways that can carry them," he said.

Pruyn is an advocate of a westside bypass that would run from the Airport Road exit on Interstate 90 to Blue Mountain Road at Highway 93 South.

The Malfunction remake won't affect the entrance to Pruyn Veterinary Clinic, he said.

"I don't think this new plan will affect us much," he said. "I do think it will allow the traffic to move faster, and that's more dangerous."

Malfunction's malfunction has its roots in the 1890s and the rivalry between the Higgins family and merchant Andrew B. Hammond. The two competed with each other in many early enterprises. In 1891, they disagreed about how a new bridge on Higgins Avenue should cross the Clark Fork River.

Hammond wanted it to slant west to the Bitterroot Wagon Road, historian Allan Mathews writes in his book, "A Guide to Historic Missoula." Higgins wanted it to cross straight south, following the section lines.

At the time, there were only a few houses south of the river, but it was seen as an opportunity for development, maybe even for a new town. Judge Hiram Knowles owned land south of the river, and he planned the Knowles Addition on a north-south grid.

But attorneys W. J. Stephens and W. M. Bickford laid out their streets oriented with the wagon road to the Bitterroot - the neighborhood that's called the Slant Streets today.

Jim Carlson, director of environmental health at the Missoula City-County Health Department and veteran of years of air quality work at the intersection, learned from Missoula history expert Audra Browman that Stephens designed Stephens Avenue 120 feet wide to accommodate a U-turn by a wagon and team of horses, he said.

As early as 1967, Missoula residents were dreaming up ways to fix Malfunction Junction. Until 1976, it was just a traffic mess, Carlson said. Then health officials began measuring its air quality.

The federal government allows one violation of the carbon monoxide standards per year. The measurements discovered that Missoula violated the standard more than 100 days a year at Malfunction Junction.

"We had to do something about it," said Shannon Therriault, environmental health supervisor and an air quality specialist at the Missoula City-County Health Department.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated Missoula as a nonattainment area for carbon monoxide in 1978. Health officials worked on other air pollution sources, too - wood-burning stoves and fireplaces and outdoor burning - and air quality improved. Between 1990 and 2000, carbon monoxide emissions went down 40 percent.

Idling cars, especially older ones before the improvements of today, are a source of emissions, so a solution to move them through Malfunction Junction faster was always on the table. The air-quality designation brought $30 million in federal transportation money, called CMAQ for Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality, if Missoula could fix the problem.

The most controversial proposal came in 1994, when the city of Missoula hired a Boise firm to redesign the intersection. It suggested an overpass that would have sent Brooks speeding atop Russell Street and South Avenue.

It would have wiped out eight businesses, including Ruby's Cafe, and restricted access so severely for 75 other businesses that they might have fallen, the owners said at the time.

"We got a revolution going," Bender said. "The businesses saw it as very brutal because they lost all the access to Brooks. So we said, 'OK, that's not going to work.' "

The city and the state considered underpasses, urban interchanges, transportation demand management plans and more before it reached the final solution. The City Council approved the funding in 1999.

Now the pieces are in place for construction to begin in April. The city acquired the needed right-of-way pieces from 34 property owners for just under $1 million. The construction contract, awarded by the state to Montana Materials Inc., known locally as L.S. Jensen, is for $3,857,908. The cost of 10 years of engineering and design was

$6.5 million.

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency is contributing $70,000 of improvements, such as warm-brown cobblestone for the dividers.

"We're going to try to create a unique look for Midtown Missoula," said MRA director Ellen Buchanan.

During construction, the intersections will be built first, said Keene. Traffic will detour off South Avenue, and Brooks Street will have night lane closures from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. The city will also restore the pavement on Brooks during the project.

Informational public meetings will be held before construction starts, said Oliphant, who will be the city coordinator for the project. The city will manage the construction with some oversight from the Montana Department of Transportation.

It won't be as disruptive as one might think, he said.

"It's nothing like 39th Street," he said, "tearing up the road and all the utilities."

Reporter Ginny Merriam can be reached at 523-5251 or gmerriam@missoulian.com

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