Lane change 

State switches gears on Missoula’s bike infrastructure

Doug Moeller never intended to set a precedent. But when the district administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) recently announced that he’d take bike lanes into consideration with future Missoula projects, local officials had to do a double-take. Simply put, that had never happened before.

“The orientation [of the MDT] has always been toward large pickup trucks,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Bob Jaffe. “[Bikes] are something that just didn’t seem to ever cross their minds.”

But Moeller offers new hope. A former district maintenance director who was promoted to his current post in December, Moeller says he’s willing to address additional bike lanes as early as this summer’s paving season.

“In my opinion, bikes are an important part of the transportation system, especially in downtown Missoula,” he says. “That’s why we developed a group so we could sit down and talk about it.”

The group was the idea of Jim Sayer, executive director of the Adventure Cycling Association. Following last year’s development of the Downtown Master Plan, Sayer found consensus among the community for an improved bike infrastructure.

“We had this really strong common interest in getting bike facilities from the bridge to the Xs on Higgins,” Sayer says. “We had a pretty strong consensus that we wanted to try to do this, so it was important to talk with MDT.”

He gathered Moeller, local elected officials, representatives from downtown organizations and cycling advocates on May 26 to discuss how to move forward. Sayer says the main idea was to demonstrate to Moeller that a wide range of people wanted to see more attention paid to bicyclists. 

“To be honest with you, you’d have to kill me to get my car away from me,” says Rod Austin, director of operations for the Missoula Business Improvement District (MBID), who attended the meeting. “But I do understand that if I can get people to spend less money on gasoline, the potential savings is in the millions of dollars just in Missoula. It’s an economic driver. If you create that safe environment, then more people will come downtown on bicycles.”

The meeting appears to have worked.

“The most encouraging thing that I heard during the meeting is that whenever MDT puts down new lines on the road, they’ll consider what accommodations can be made for bikes and pedestrians,” says Ward 1 Councilmember Jason Wiener, who also attended the meeting. “That’s very encouraging, but the proof is in the lines this summer.”

Specifically, the “lines” refer to tentative plans to repave both Orange Street and Higgins Avenue from Broadway south to the bridges. MDT also has plans to repave the southern portion of Russell Street and South Avenue near Reserve Street. Moeller says bike lanes will be considered at each location. 

“Obviously we have to move traffic safely,” he says. “That’s going to be our number one concern. But if we can incorporate bike lanes while allowing traffic to move safely, then we need to take a look at that.”

Now that all parties appear to be on the same page, the next step will be to make the bike lanes actually fit. Higgins Avenue, for example, runs 66 feet wide. The tentative plan discussed at Sayer’s meeting calls for two 10-foot lanes, a 5.5-foot bike lane and a 7.5-foot parking space on each side of the street. Mountain Line, however, needs more space to accommodate buses, says General Manager Steve Earl. 

“I want to make sure you understand we’re not opposed to bike lanes at all,” Earl says. “But what we really need is 11 feet.”

There’s also the question of which bike lanes would best serve Missoula. Austin with MBID prefers closed lanes, or cycle tracks, because they’re separated from traffic with a concrete barrier. Sayer, meanwhile, as well as Bob Giordano of the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation, maintains that cycle tracks are less safe than painted bike lanes because crashes between bikes and cars generally occur at intersections. Cycle tracks, they say, tend to isolate the rider from the driver’s view, making the driver less likely to see the cyclist as they near an intersection.

Whichever solution emerges, local officials remain optimistic about MDT’s change of heart. After all, it was just in March that the city’s Public Works Committee denied MDT’s request for an exemption from the noise ordinance to work on repaving projects overnight—a denial Jaffe says was in protest of the lack of bike lanes in the project.

“The likelihood that you would have Rod Austin and Matt Ellis (of the Missoula Downtown Association), and Bob Giordano and Jim Sayer in the same room, saying basically the same thing to a state agency about a road a year ago was kinda low,” Wiener says. “But everybody seems clear with the same interests downtown and that’s great.”
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