This week, the Missoula City Council voted 9-3 in favor of a resolution drafted by the Open Space Advisory Committee to authorize spending up to $200,000 for extensions of the bicycle and pedestrian trails along the Kim Williams, Bitterroot Spur and Milwaukee Branch Trail corridors. This latest allocation comes in addition to the $230,000 of open space bond money earmarked by the council back in 1996 for improvements to Missoula's Bicycle Commuter Network.
Support for and opposition to the measure ran along predictable ideological lines, with council members Larry Anderson, Jamie Carpenter and Jack Reidy voting against it. Of the three, only Anderson seemed able to voice an intelligent rationale for his vote. Anderson, a solidly consistent fiscal conservative, raised a valid point when he argued that he could not in good conscience vote in favor of spending Missoula taxpayers' dollars on these projects when one-quarter to one-third of them will lie on county land outside the city limits.
"We need to know what is the ongoing maintenance cost to taxpayers," added Anderson. "I don't think you're telling us the whole story."
But as council member Jim McGrath pointed out, the cost of maintaining bicycle and pedestrian trails-estimated by Missoula Parks and Recreation at roughly $2,000 per mile annually-is considerably less than the maintenance cost on a four-lane highway, an expenditure which we seem to have no problem accepting.
Council member Carpenter then offered a quixotic explanation for her opposition, saying something to the effect that while it appears there are plenty of bicycles in Missoula, we're still having difficulty paying for Missoula's bicycle coordinator, and maybe we shouldn't be taking money from the automobile drivers after all. (Huh?) As for council member Reidy, at the risk of sounding snide, sometimes the man appears so opposed to anything different and new that he would vote against changing a dirty diaper.
Thankfully, more far-sighted visions prevailed, and the measure was approved. As Jim Parker, Chairman of the Open Space Advisory Committee pointed out, there is overwhelming support not only on his committee but in the community at large for a more improved, expanded and contiguous trail system to link Missoula with outlying rural areas. It's important to recognize that as Missoula grows, many of the opportunities to purchase or obtain these lands or right-of-way easements will quickly disappear into the hands of developers or the red zone of fiscal impracticality.
Curtis Brundy, a Missoula resident and bicycle commuter who occasionally voices his opinions to City Council on transportation issues, expressed his pleasure recently at discovering "a little jewel," a section of new trail recently opened in south Missoula. Projects like this one, said Brundy, are a far better use of federal CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality) money than projects like the multimillion dollar realignment project for Malfunction Junction.
"So why aren't we talking about $2 million instead of $200,000?" asked Brundy.
Good question. Sure, in the realm of the cryptic transportation acronyms, $200,000 can go a long way, especially since it can be used to leverage various sources of state and federal grant money. CMAQ, TEA-21, and CTEP four-to-one matching grants can turn a mere $200,000 into a cool million in a New York minute. No doubt some grant-writing wizards are spinning the wheels in that direction already.
But how much would even $1 million buy us as far as bicycle and pedestrian trails are concerned? Not as much as you'd like to believe. After all, it's not construction of the trails, but the purchase or lease of the land that consumes the lion's share of the money.
During Monday night's presentation, Kate Supplee, Open Space program manager, referred to a recently completed section of trail that runs eight-tenths of a mile across Montana Rail Link property. Another section of trail between North and South avenues will run approximately 1.3 miles. Both admirable accomplishments, but it might be worth keeping in mind that taken together they amount to little more than the distance of the new entrance and exit ramps under renovation at the Reserve Street exit.
Why is it in a state like Montana, which pummels automobile drivers with some of the highest fuel taxes in the nation, is there not more transportation money available for bicycle and pedestrian trails? According to figures from Missoula transportation consultant John Williams, the Montana Department of Transportation receives more than $120 million in state gasoline and diesel taxes per year to spend. Of that, only about $200,000 is earmarked for bicycle and pedestrian projects, or about one-fifth of one percent of their income.
If, however, MDT put aside a mere seven percent of our tax money for bicycle and pedestrian projects, it would come to about $8.4 million. Imagine what Missoula's Commuter Bicycle Network would look like then.
Am I grateful for the $200,000? Of course. But let's not kid ourselves. Next time you're on your bicycle, count how long it takes you to cover eight-tenths of a mile. My guess it's less time than it takes to fill the gas tank on your average sport utility vehicle.