“Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.” 

With that simple exasperated utterance, urban planning guru Lewis Mumford in 1979 famously lampooned the freeway-and-motor mania of his philosophical arch nemesis, New York master planner Robert Moses. Inadvertently, Mumford also delivered the slogan for countless urban renewal projects to come.

The topic of urban renewal might be fairly fresh to Missoula, but it’s hardly off the lips of the morning crier. Worries over downtown’s flagging retail health and the sprouting of big box marts on the periphery have furrowed brows for years. The topic managed to draw a significant crowd to the Edgewater Holiday Inn for a March 5 public feedback session on drafting a redevelopment blueprint for downtown. Perhaps of no surprise, transportation issues dominated the discussion, which was facilitated by Portland consulting firm Crandall Arambula.

After hearing concerns that a new-look downtown might overwhelm parking resources, firm principle George Crandall popped a question as Portland-ish as baristas on fixed-gear bicycles: How about light rail? Stars almost instantly filled the eyes of many progressive attendees.

Though a sexy idea, Mumfordian even, the rub is…this issue has surfaced (and been scuttled) several times before.

Back in 1996, the city developed a light rail plan that summarily perished from the common malady of sticker shock—$100 million, to be exact. Another pitch arrived a decade later when prodded along by another coastal consultant, Lewis Ames of San Francisco. At the time, Public Works director Steve King went so far as to call the capital cost of such a project “astronomical.” The debate spawned an as-yet-unreleased study of a light rail track connecting Missoula to the Bitterroot. Insiders say without federal or state earmarks, it doesn’t look promising.

“From a local perspective, yes, it’s cost prohibitive,” notes project consultant Darryl James.

On both occasions, the lofty schemes derailed and—allow us to look into a crystal ball—so will this one. Plainly and simply, more cost effective alternatives exist, and public transportation systems, like the Mountain Line bus, remain grossly underutilized already.

Crandall encourages Missoulians to dream big, saying that it’s easier to rally folks behind a Wagnerian idea than a trifling one. This is probably true, but in government-wary Montana, it’s definitely easier to move forward without pushing the envelope clear off the table. Bandwagons around here just don’t run on electricity.
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