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Morning commuters approach the stoplight at Fifth Street and Higgins Avenue this week the morning after the city Public Works Committee approved a plan to narrow Fifth and Sixth streets west of Higgins to one lane of traffic and a wider bike lane. Supporters of the plan say it will make the arterials safer and have little effect on travel time on the streets.

Fifth and Sixth streets could finally be turned into one-lane vehicular roads, creating wider bike lanes, under a proposal that will be considered at Missoula’s Monday night City Council meeting.

It’s been about six years since the concept was first proposed, in light of concerns about speeds, crashes, a lack of adequate bike facilities and wrong-way driving and riding on the one-way streets. A study wrapped up two years ago — and with plans to resurface the streets soon — Ben Weiss, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, told council members that the time might be right.

“This spring, we submitted Option 1C [from the study] and all the information we collected to the Montana Department of Transportation,” Weiss said. “They got back to us this summer, said it looks good and we can move forward with a couple suggestions.”

He noted that MDT approval was necessary because the streets are part of the state’s urban system. The change is anticipated to cost about $3,000, and will only affect Fifth and Sixth between Higgins and Russell.

Weiss said the Riverfront neighborhood first raised concerns in 2012, and since the study was conducted in 2016 he’s made presentations to four neighborhoods and incorporated feedback from the residents.

Some of the data collected showed that vehicles are traveling an average 37 mph, which is faster than the 25 mph posted limit. Between 2007 and 2014 the two streets averaged about 35 vehicle crashes each year, “with even more hit-and-runs of parked cars and killed pets anecdotally reported by neighbors.”

“They carry one-quarter of the traffic as they could — combined they carry less than Third — but have a significant number of crashes; 279 in eight years,” Weiss said. “Those are some of the reasons that the neighbors are asking for some solution.”

In a letter to the City Council, Alex Taft wrote in support of the proposed changes.

“Public safety has historically been endangered given the modified nature of these neighborhood streets,” he wrote. “The new configuration of one driving lane for most of their length will cause drivers to proceed at an average speed, allow space between driving and parking lanes, and limit to one driving lane the width a pedestrian must cross.”

However, Clint Burson, the Missoula Chamber of Commerce’s director of government affairs, said their members have been opposed to this “for quite some time.” He called Fifth and Sixth streets important cross-town arterials, and moving to a single lane will both increase congestion and hurt commuters on their way to work.

Studies show about 75 percent of people who work in Missoula commute by vehicle, he added.

“Despite substantial improvements to bike and pedestrian facilities, the number of people going to work by car remains the same,” Burson said. “Removing a vehicle lane from Fifth and Sixth will do little to address some of the stated desires for the citizens of Missoula. The vast majority of the crashes that happen occur at the intersections and will continue to exist.”

A few of the council members voiced their support for the change, with council member Mirtha Becerra noting that it’s a long-standing goal for the community to provide safe infrastructure for all modes of transportation, and this conversion would encourage the local community to use these facilities more.

However, council member Jesse Ramos voted to oppose the change.

“The No. 1 concern we get as council members is there’s too much traffic congestion in Missoula already,” Ramos said. “So the arguments that these streets are underutilized falls flat.”

Public comments on the proposal will be taken at the council's meeting Monday, which begins at 7 p.m. in the council chambers, 140 W. Pine St.

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