Dying for a solution 

Pedestrians suffering from Broadway bind

How many people have to die on West Broadway before something’s done to improve safety for pedestrians? That’s the question being asked by a group of Missoulians, and the answer to their question is five. And counting.

A memorial and procession to draw attention to the dangers pedestrians face along the West Broadway corridor, and to demand that something be done to address them, is planned for Aug. 9, from noon to 1 p.m. along a stretch of West Broadway. Organizers say participants will cross back and forth across Broadway at the pedestrian crossings at Scott and Burton streets. Others will line the sidewalks on either side with white crosses and signs to commemorate the dead.

“Something has to happen. We need to insist that this become a priority,” says Bob Oakes, one of the organizers, and director of the North Missoula Community Develop-ment  Corporation. Along with the NMCDC, the Federated Northside and Westside Neighborhood Council, Poverello Center Executive Director Joseph Bischof and Missoula Advocates for Sustainable Transportation are organizing the event. They’ve also been trying to find and implement a fix for years.

The most recent death, on the morning of July 10, came after 43-year-old David Reynolds was hit by a car while crossing West Broadway near the Kum and Go convenience store at the Toole-Broadway-California interchange. Four others have been killed since 1998 in a four-block stretch along West Broadway from Hillsdale to Burton streets. Not included in the death tally, fortunately, are multiple others who have been struck and injured in the area. Kay Brown, who has lived at Eagle Watch Estates on Burton Street since 1992, was crossing the street several years ago when she was hit by a white pickup truck and left with a broken femur and a destroyed wheelchair. She says she knows five others in her apartments, which house disabled tenants, who’ve been hit.

Though the West Broadway safety issue has been on the table for several years, officials say it will be nearly a year before a response is implemented. The response from Bischof, Oakes and others is simple: That’s not soon enough.

“If four people were gunned down in this neighborhood, don’t you think the police would be all over this?” asks Jim McGrath, a former City Council representative for the area who began seeking a solution when he was in office. A 1998 study by the Missoula Redevelopment Agency suggested traffic signals could improve safety, but the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT)—which has jurisdiction over West Broadway—said no, claiming a light would hamper traffic and cause more rear-end accidents. Instead, MDT suggested a reconfiguration of West Broadway from Toole to Orange streets, where the four-lane road would be redrawn as two lanes with a turning lane in the middle, meaning that pedestrians would have to negotiate only two lanes of oncoming cars rather than four. The project quickly picked up the moniker “road diet” and politics ensued—downtown proprietors worried the change would negatively impact their businesses, and some Council members were convinced the road should be made bigger, not smaller. MDT continually turned down calls for a traffic light, additionally citing the fact that it would address only one intersection rather than the whole corridor for roughly the same cost of $200,000. Last June, after three years of work on the project, Council voted to kill the project altogether, but Mayor Mike Kadas vetoed the move, and the reconfiguration plan has been inching forward since then.

At this point, says Dwane Kailey, MDT’s acting Missoula district administrator, the project is scheduled to be put out to bid in September. But since the state has an August deadline for completing chip-sealing projects, which would cover up existing lane stripes, Kailey says work on West Broadway can’t begin until May 2006.

“I would agree it needs to happen as soon as possible. However, based on federal regulation...we can’t go forward with it,” Kailey says.

Organizers of the Aug. 9 memorial say they don’t particularly care what’s done at this point—they have tried to stay out of the stoplight vs. lane reconfiguration debate—but that something needs to happen before another person dies, and next spring isn’t soon enough.

“There has been a succession of excuses, and that’s not going to cut it anymore,” says Oakes. That’s why invitations have been sent to Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, MDT Director Jim Lynch, the Missoula County Commissioners, Missoula’s state legislators, Mayor Kadas, the Missoula City Council and candidates for both the Council and mayoral seats.

Current Ward 2 representatives Don Nicholson and Anne Marie Kazmierczak say they’ve both done everything they can to address the West Broadway situation although both voted to kill the reconfiguration project last June. Nicholson says he’ll attend the memorial and Kazmierczak will try to be there.

Kailey acknowledges that higher authorities might be able to hasten the project, though any speed-up would be difficult to orchestrate given the limitations of the construction season: “It’s always a possibility. They’re more than welcome to seek those avenues,” he says. “I’m not aware of anything we can do at this time to expedite the project; however, I’m more than willing to entertain ideas.”

In lieu of a permanent fix before next spring, memorial organizers are calling for a stop-gap solution like barrels and cones to mark the three-lane configuration, or a temporary stoplight. Missoula Public Works Director Steve King argues a temporary solution is unlikely, since it might create more problems than it solves, MDT would have to approve any measure and funding would have to be scraped together in short order.

Organizer Bischof isn’t buying that answer: “If this was happening at Broadway and Higgins, you can bet that some kind of solution would be found,” he says. “But because it’s somewhat removed from the downtown area, I think that people just don’t pay attention to it. It’s out of sight, out of mind.”

A “memorial gathering and procession” will be held Tuesday, Aug. 9, from noon to 1 p.m. at the intersection of Broadway and Burton streets. For more information, call 829-0873.

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