One way or no way 

Half a calendar year lies between now and the scheduled public comment period on the long-awaited Russell Street reconstruction project, but some residents say federal transportation authorities have already begun eliminating options.

At an informal project update April 16 on Missoula’s  westside, project engineer Darryl James reported that the Federal Highway Administration will likely withdraw funds—totaling $39.2 million—if the city insists on a two- or three-lane project. The feds maintain that only a four- or five-lane deal will adequately address future traffic projections, which predict Russell will see about 30,000 cars a day by 2025, thousands more than the present volume.

If the early feedback is any indication, the plan will likely prove quite unpopular among the nearby neighborhoods south and west of the Champion mill site.

Linda Smith of the Rose Park neighborhood council has been working behind the scenes on the Russell Street plan since 2000. She asserts many neighbors of the would-be project would rather shun the federal funds altogether than accept the terms currently on the table.

“There’s a lot of distrust with this project,” Smith says, referring to both this latest development and the city’s ongoing attempt to extend Russell to Interstate 90. “Citizens have been disadvantaged throughout the whole process.”

“[Accountability] is exactly why we had that meeting,” says Missoula Public Works director Steve King, talking about the April 16 event. “It was intended to inform and empower the public.”

Both King and James defend the federally preferred five-lane project from an engineering standpoint.

“There’s a residential area here, and we’re trying to be sensitive to that, but Russell is still a major arterial for the city,” James says. The engineer also cautions that no project can permanently or definitively solve the problem of Russell Street backups. “We’re not building the church for Easter Sunday—you’re never going to build your way out of congestion over time.”

Even trying to, counters Bob Giordano of the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation, is the wrong approach. He argues that keeping Russell to two or three lanes along a better-managed corridor will slim down the future traffic load and reduce congestion. “The public wants something different,” Giordano says. “What we build (for roads) largely dictates neighborhood land use. If we build big at Russell, it means that other streets are going to have to be big to match it.”
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