Like city council gadflies, Missoula’s transportation watchdogs are always on the trail of congestion and controversy. This week the rumor worth chasing in watchdog circles is that pressure from a Montana senator has resulted in the promise of a traffic signal from the state to the city of Missoula. Installation is scheduled for late summer. But the senator in question, Jon Ellingson (D-Missoula), says there was no nefarious behind-the-scenes deal. Frankly, he’s surprised that his single phone call to the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) set the wheels in motion.
The road to a traffic signal at the intersection of Mullan Road and Broadway began with a Missoula citizen phoning Ellingson because she thought the intersection—one she traverses with trepidatious frequency—was becoming too dangerous to navigate.
“I don’t know that I was instrumental in it,” says the senator. “She called me about the situation at Mullan and Broadway and thought that it was something that deserved a stoplight, and so I followed up with it with the Department of Transportation.”
Ellingson contacted MDT and told the department about the motorist’s concerns. MDT responded by saying that the intersection was on their list. MDT engineering services supervisor Dwane Kailey says that the number of accidents and the congestion did warrant the signal, but that MDT was awaiting funding. Apparently a phone call from a legislator was all that was needed to shuffle projects, and the stoplight was bumped up on the list. And that could have been that.
The plot thickens when Ellingson is asked about the identity of the concerned citizen.
“Actually, I think it’s kind of funny,” he says. “It was Fred Thomas’ mom.”
When asked if he had joined the lobbying effort to light a fire under MDT, Senate Majority Leader Thomas (R-Stevensville) says no.
“I told her, we’re going to get more of a response if we get a local legislator who is taking care of local issues, than if we had some guy’s mom complaining about something in Missoula,” he says. “I said that in order to get anywhere, you can’t have your son calling, or they’re just going to roll their eyes.”
Then he added: “And besides, that Jon Ellingson is a much more handsome and effective legislator than I am.”
Both Ellingson and Thomas—who didn’t agree on much during the session—agree that they never talked to each other about Thomas’ mom’s complaint. But mom—acting on her son’s advice—took it up with Ellingson, who promptly and bipartis-anly did what he could to help a little old lady across the street.