Road rage 

A long wait for Russell Street to be rebuilt

It’s a Thursday at 5:12 in the evening, rush hour nightmare time at the intersection of Russell and Third Streets. Traffic running east and west on Third is backed up four blocks in both directions; the flow on Russell is no better, with cars and trucks in idle mode for more than 10 blocks, from Sixth Street to the bridge over the Clark Fork River.

One desperate motorist decides to take a detour down California St., three blocks east of Third. Another car soon follows suit. Assorted other vehicles swing into the left turn lanes hoping to catch the elusive green arrow. It appears every minute or so, but it feels like five minutes for a driver.

“It’s just madness down there every day,” says Missoula Public Works Director Steve King. “It’s total gridlock where the cars can back up for a mile and not effectively move. It’s a disaster.”

The intersection of Third and Russell represents the center of what some city officials call the worst part of Missoula’s current traffic system, a problem spot that ranges from Russell to Reserve Street on Third Street, and from Broadway Street to Mount Avenue on Russell.

This network, King says, represents bad planning, an outdated system, and a dangerous situation—all of which the city hopes to resolve, thanks to a $40 million improvement project that’s been in the planning stages for eight years. If and when it launches, the project would reconstruct two and a half miles of road, expand Russell Street from two lanes to four lanes, build sidewalks, create extensions to the city’s trail system, and add much-needed bike lanes.

When could we hope to get relief? If all goes according to plan, the construction would be complete in about 2013.

The improvements are worth waiting for, officials say. The Russell Street bridge, for example, was one of the first spans built in Missoula, and has remained unchanged since the 1960s, King says.

“A road would never be constructed like that today,” he adds. “It’s nowhere near efficient.”

To fund the project, city officials hope to raise an estimated $11 million in transportation impact fees, which city residents started paying earlier this year. (The city impact fee, which is only assessed on new construction, ranges from about $1,638 for a 1,700 square foot home, to $39,580 for a 10,000 square foot commercial center.) State and federal monies will pay for the rest.

Missoula Mayor John Engen says $29 million of the project budget will go toward constructing a new Russell Street bridge, a four-lane behemoth that will be built next to the existing bridge between Second and Broadway Streets. Engen says part of that money comes from a $6 million federal earmark provided by Sen. Max Baucus.

“That’s one reason this project needs to move forward now. I’d really hate to see that earmark go away and fall victim to the ravages of inflation,” Engen says. In other words, time equals money.

At the Feb. 11 City Council meeting, when Engen ticked down a list of his priorities for the last two years of his term, rebuilding the Third and Russell corridor ranked at the top of his list.

“We’ve been working on this project for many, many years, and it needs to be completed as soon as possible, which is what I plan on doing,” the mayor says.

According to King, Missoula has been concerned about the corridor for 12 years. City officials first named Third and Russell as a troubled intersection in a 1996 Transportation Plan when the city had about 15,000 fewer people, King says.

Funding problems and the approval process itself, which includes extensive paperwork and government studies, has caused the delays, officials say. Now, with the city’s population expanding, the traffic is worse than ever.

“With Third and Russell it’s not even a matter of building it to accommodate future growth. It’s trying to build the road to meet the current population,” King says.

The first draft of the Environmental Impact Statement needed to build a new bridge has taken the city three years alone, and that project won’t win approval until at least June of this year. A final version will take until 2009.

“We’re really frustrated by the process, and it’s not that the EIS is a bad thing,” Engen says. “We’re certainly interested in protecting the river and the folks along the corridor, but on some level it’s just taken so much time and you have to wonder if it’s worth it.”

Because of the time already invested in the proposed new bridge, the city is taking a different approach with the improvements to Third Street.

“We’re looking to shave about a year and a half to two years off of the timeline, and in the case of a 12 year project that may not seem like much, but it’s a fine start,” Engen says.

King says over the next two to three years the proceeds from the assessment fees, plus interest, should get close to the $11 million mark needed to repair and change Third.

By 2013, if all goes well, King says Russell and Third will look completely different—and fit the transportation ideals of the city. That, at the very least, should aid the commutes of many Missoulians by creating trail connections, friendly pedestrian accommodations, and enough lanes for the traffic.

Until then, get used to waiting. After all, it’s been a long tie up already.
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