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A three-car crash at Mullan Road and George Elmer Drive last week along with other wrecks and near-misses the last few years have local residents wondering when a long-promised traffic light will be put in.

A light has been planned for the intersection for over 12 years, but local and state officials say traffic in the rapidly developing area hasn’t quite reached the threshold for building the stoplight.

The city and the county have anticipated much of Missoula’s growth to take place out on Mullan Road, and multiple subdivisions and development projects are in the works. But some residents who already live there are concerned infrastructure isn’t keeping pace with the growth.

The pileup last week didn't result in hospitalizations. However, John Hancock, an area resident and member of the Captain John Mullan Neighborhood Council, said without a light at the intersection, people are left to make risky moves while entering or exiting traffic on Mullan.

“What happens is people get increasingly frustrated trying to find a spot to turn onto Mullan, so they have to gun it,” Hancock said. “If it’s getting dark and someone coming down the road has their headlights off, that’s dangerous.”

Jeremy Keene, Missoula’s Public Works director, said he was hoping vehicle counts at the intersection would soon meet the state’s threshold for putting in the stoplight on Mullan, which is a state road. However, it is possible the quota has already been met, as he said the last time a count was done may have been 2018.

According to documents from 2017, city engineers expected the number of cars to meet the threshold in 2018 and construction to begin that year. But a Montana Department of Transportation study found traffic actually dropped slightly in 2018, so the project was postponed.

Over the last few years, the city has set aside money each year to eventually fund the traffic signal. And now, officials have their fingers crossed for a federal grant to help support development in the Mullan Road area.

The city and county are seeking the $23 million federal grant to help fund a slew of infrastructure projects in the area to support what could be 3,000 new homes in the Mullan area. But Hancock said he thinks the city needs to be more proactive about heading off the development with the infrastructure before it reaches a breaking point, not after.

As for the stoplight at George Elmer, Keene said there may be room for flexibility with the state even if the daily car threshold hasn’t been met quite yet. He said once development of subdivisions in the area is further along, the state may be convinced the need for the light is imminent and can begin construction. He also said he was interested in giving a harder look at the possibility of a roundabout rather than a light.

Local officials hope to know whether Missoula won the federal BUILD grant in November or December, County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said earlier. And while that would likely accelerate the process of getting the intersection under control, Keene said it will also mean there will be additional federal guidelines to follow when spending that money.

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