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Missoula’s Northside and Westside neighborhoods lack sidewalks in huge swaths of residential areas, even though more than 10 percent of residents don’t own cars and more than 75 percent have low to moderate income levels.

To walk to schools, parks, workplaces and bus stops, residents risk their safety every day by taking to the streets.

And at the current rate of funding of between $800,000 to $1 million a year, it would take the City of Missoula roughly 80 to 100 years to fill in missing sidewalks in every neighborhood.

That’s why the Missoula Metropolitan Planning Organization (MMPO) is developing a comprehensive Pedestrian Facilities Master Plan to identify current gaps and issues and provide a model for prioritizing improvements and strategies for dealing with the problems.

“We’ve been working with the city and the county on what we want the pedestrian system to look like and where we have deficiencies,” explained Aaron Wilson, the MMPO’s transportation planning division manager. “How can we get to a complete pedestrian network?”

Wilson said a lack of adequate facilities has a negative effect on all Missoulians, but especially kids, the elderly, people with disabilities and low-income residents without cars.

“There’s a lot of missing sidewalks in some of the neighborhoods,” he said. “Like the Northside/Westside, some of those neighborhoods that were built up in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, there just wasn’t an emphasis on doing sidewalks when people were building houses, so there’s a real need to fill in those gaps.

"Those are the places where we’re seeing a lot of infill or new building and people want to walk to school or walk to the bus routes or parks or whatever services they’re trying to access. So that’s one critical need to make things safer for people.”

The organization knows there are other issues besides missing sidewalks.

“Existing sidewalks are also deteriorating and in need of accessibility upgrades,” Wilson said. “Intersection crossings on busier streets need safety improvements.”

It costs about $800,000 per mile to install new sidewalks on both sides of a street, so Wilson said the organization is looking for “creative” ways to address the funding gap, including applying for grants.

Private developers are currently required to help install missing sidewalks in front of new construction, and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency often contributes Tax Increment Financing funds to new sidewalks or repairs.

The MMPO has been holding a series of open houses to take public input, and survey respondents said the largest barriers to walking in Missoula are people driving too fast on busy streets, not having enough safe places to cross busy streets, and missing sidewalks on busy streets.

Julie Merritt, a City Council member who represents Ward 6, was at the final open house on Tuesday night because she often hears concerns and complaints from constituents regarding the city’s inadequate pedestrian infrastructure.

“I represent Ward 6, which includes the Franklin to the Fort and the River Road neighborhoods, and if you take a look at that map you will see that there’s a large percentage of areas with red, which means there’s no pedestrian facilities,” she said, pointing to a picture Wilson’s office created.

“That’s just been a number of things that I’ve heard from constituents in my neighborhood, that they just want to be able to safely walk to school, walk to work and get closer to the existing commuter trails that we have.”

Merritt said the lack of sidewalks contributes to a lot of problems, including overuse of streets.

“I like that they’ve really been data-driven in this process,” she said. “I think Aaron Wilson has done a great job here. And I participated in one of the public meetings where we split off in groups and marked down on a map where we thought the most important place to put sidewalks was. It was really good to participate in that process. They’ve really looked at the data they have available and done a good job balancing what we can afford and what we really need, and taken all those things into account.”

Missoula has a lot of problems it needs to tackle, including a lack of affordable housing and relatively high crime rates per capita, but Merritt said a lack of pedestrian infrastructure ranks high on the list of issues.

“I think it ranks pretty high because it feeds into all of those things,” she said. “If our neighborhoods are walkable and safe just from a ‘I can walk from my house to the store or to my school’ standpoint, then more people do it. And the more people who are out on the sidewalks it is more socially safer, because you get to know your neighbors that way."

Merritt believes installing sidewalks would also help the housing affordability issue.

"And then housing affordability is kind of key also, because a lot of people who need lower-income housing may not have a car, and transportation is a huge part of housing costs," she said. "If you can’t get to the services you need, then it’s increasing the cost of that housing.”

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