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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.

A lengthy discussion and dozens of letters over whether to shrink Fifth and Sixth streets to one lane of one-way traffic each caused a bit of bewilderment to Missoula City Council members before the measure passed, 9-2, Monday night.

“Ten blocks. Paint. That’s all we’re talking about,” Councilor Julie Armstrong said after hearing about 45 minutes of public comments. “This is not monumental, and if this is the most controversial thing that comes across our desk this year, thank God.”

Council members added that they’ll monitor the impacts the change has on the one-way streets. If it causes more crashes, especially those involving pedestrians, or impedes traffic, they can simply revert to the existing configuration by repainting the stripes.

The cost of turning both the roads into one lane for vehicles and another for bicycles between Higgins and Russell is estimated to be between $3,000 and $4,000.

It’s been about six years since the concept was first proposed by area residents, who were concerned about speeding, crashes, a lack of adequate bike facilities and wrong-way driving and riding on the two streets.

In particular, they were worried about what’s referred to as a “double threat,” which occurs when a vehicle stops to let a pedestrian cross the street. Sometimes the driver in the adjacent lane doesn’t see the person crossing, so the driver may hit the pedestrian.

Councilor Jordan Hess said an analysis shows dropping to one lane for vehicles and widening the existing bike lane is expected to alleviate those issues. Speeds will drop because the leading vehicle will set the pace, one lane of traffic will reduce side swipes and remove the double threat to pedestrians, rear-end crashes should drop and bicyclists will be given more space, Hess added.

“This was a citizen-initiated process,” Hess said, noting that Fifth and Sixth streets average one crash every 10 days, and the lane reduction should reduce that by 19 to 37 percent. “These are measurable problems we need to look to solve.”

While some community members applauded the change, many who testified and wrote letters opposing the switch considered it a question of motorists vs. bicyclists. Heather Carls wrote that the two streets are critical arterials for in-town cross traffic.

“Removal of a lane will greatly increase my commute and many others, I’d assume. The city cannot afford to lose any more lanes to bike traffic,” Carls wrote. “Missoula has gone above and beyond to accommodate bike riders.”

Others said the change would both increase congestion and hurt commuters on their way to work. Business owner Nate Nunnally wrote to the council saying that “reality and common sense dictates that vehicle traffic is here to stay and will only increase with the population growth that we … historically experience.”

But Willard Alternative High School Principal Kevin Ritchlin wrote that, especially with the nearby schools, this isn’t about bikes and vehicles sharing the road, but about the double threat to students.

“I am concerned we are a few steps away from an unfortunate and preventable accident,” he wrote in a letter of support.

Councilors Michelle Cares said she would only support the lane reduction if it was just for Sixth Street, and Jesse Ramos reluctantly voted no, saying he was concerned it would create congestion concerns similar to what they hear from commuters on Russell and Reserve. Stacie Anderson was absent.

But Councilor Gwen Jones, referencing a lengthy study of the short section of the two roadways between Orange and Russell streets, noted that “a lot of science and data” has been analyzed, and in the end this was a safety issue on what already are two under-utilized roads.

Councilor John DiBari added that the studies show the single lane, and some related tweaks to traffic signals, are estimated to add about 20 seconds to the average commute. He anticipates that eventually Fifth and Sixth will be two-way streets, but dropping the one-ways to a single lane for now is just safer.

“It’s safer for pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers and anyone who parks on this street,” DiBari said, adding that turn lanes will be in place at the major intersections. “The level of service will actually increase.”

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