“In the Year 2000...” 

Getting around by the numbers in the last, best place

From my earliest childhood, I can still recall the phrase “by the year 2000…” being trumpeted endlessly as the milestone at which all major forecasts were measured, from the dwindling space available in our nation’s landfills to the explosion in the world’s population. More often than not, those predictions produced in me a silently vertiginous effect, like being nudged ever closer to a high precipice yet unable to back away.

Similarly, for those who have moved to Missoula from larger cities, it can be difficult at times to fully appreciate the uneasiness felt by native and long-time Missoulians about this city’s current rate of expansion. After all, Missoula County is growing at a rate of only about 1.4 percent annually, considered sluggish by national standards and certainly well within manageable levels. Even if that pace were to increase significantly, Missoula will remain a small city for many years to come.

And yet, there is no escaping the inevitable: Change is underway, and much of it is neither aesthetically pleasing nor desirable. As we enter the next century, the issues of transportation and prudent land use will remain intimately tied to our social, economic and environmental health, our quality of life and our physical and psychological well-being.

On Jan. 21, the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) will host Montana’s second statewide growth summit in Helena, titled “Big Sky or Big Sprawl?” For sprawl-busters and smart growth advocates throughout Montana, this will be an opportunity to share visions of our communities and to learn new planning tools for preserving the places we love. It will also be a time to put aside some of the outdated models that have driven our notions of growth during the past 50 years.

What follows are some numbers that have come my way in recent months. Just keep in mind: Statistics, like sunny days, are no more and no less than what you make of them.

• Estimated population of Missoula County by the year 2000: 89,940

• Estimated population of Missoula County by the year 2020: 117,220

• Percentage of Missoula-area employees who said that they commute to work by bicycle at least one to three times each week: 6

• Percentage by which the cost of a typical housing unit increases when developers are required to meet a two-parking-space minimum:10-25.

• Projected cost of preparing existing Montana Rail Link tracks for a Hamilton-to-Missoula light rail system: $51 million.

• Projected cost of a one-way train ticket between Hamilton and Missoula: $10-12.

• Minimum square footage of nonresidential real estate required for a city to support a light rail system: 20 million

• Estimated square footage of residential and nonresidential real estate in downtown Missoula: 3.2 million

• Estimated cost of widening U.S. Highway 93 between Lolo and Hamilton: $35 million

• Years that the Montana Department of Transportation expects that project will take to complete: 3

• Years that it will take for the congestion-relief benefits of widening the highway to be negated by new “induced traffic,” according to a recent University of California study: 5

• Annual increase in the average number of hours Americans spent driving in the last five years: 40

• Share of automobile trips spent “shuttling others” that are made by women: two-thirds.

• Average number of pounds of carbon dioxide released for every gallon of gasoline burned on Montana’s roads and highways: 20

• Missoula’s daily contribution of carbon dioxide to global warming, according to Missoula bicycle/pedestrian coordinator Phil Smith, in tons: 500

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