Miles to go 

Drafting Missoula's transportation future

A draft plan of Missoula’s mobility future will hit the street for public review this week, followed by a series of public hearings for citizens to comment on the proposal.

Federal law requires that the Missoula Urban Transportation Plan Update be revisited every three years to determine the modes of travel most likely to keep streets free-flowing and air quality at an acceptable level for the next 20 years.

The city is two years behind in releasing the latest update, a delay that has necessitated a halt—since the last plan expired in November of 2001—in construction on projects that could affect Missoula’s sensitive air quality. While carbon monoxide isn’t a federal regulatory issue for the city anymore, due mainly to automobile manufacturers cutting emissions at the tail pipe, particulates in the air still plague Missoula.

“We haven’t had a carbon monoxide violation in over a decade,” city transportation planner Mike Kress said. “We still have a lot of particulates through vehicle exhaust, dust and sanding material.”

One of the city’s main goals this go-round is to develop a “multi-modal” transportation system, which means providing a range of options for travelers so they don’t necessarily have to use their cars.

“When we build facilities [in the future] we want to consider not just cars, but bikes and pedestrians,” Kress said.

The multi-modal approach is designed to alleviate the increasing number of vehicle miles being traveled each day in Missoula, and the huge increase in same expected by the year 2025.

In the year 2000, with an urban population of 88,750, 896,100 vehicle miles were traveled each day, mostly by motorists with one person per car. By 2025, with an expected population of 115,200, the city projects a 48 percent increase in vehicle miles, to 1,288,500 miles per day.

According to a year 2000 transportation census, 36,420 commuters traveled alone in their vehicles. Another 5,460 carpooled, 4,490 walked or biked, and only 660 people utilized the transit system.

“This is such a key piece to Missoula’s future,” Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation Director Bob Giordano said. “We have all this land-use planning going on, and zoning issues. A big part of it is our transportation infrastructure. What people all over the world are realizing is you can’t keep widening roads indefinitely in hope that you’re going to magically reduce congestion, increase safety, and increase convenience for other modes.”

Giordano is on the city’s Stakeholders Committee, and worked to shift the city’s focus from traditional vehicular models for growth toward alternate means of transport.

“It [is] our strong feeling that if you build the best possible bike, walk, transit system, people are going to use it. How you design your system is a big influence on the decisions that people make,” Giordano said.

Not only is widening roads considered a dinosaur approach by Giordano, but it’s also expensive.

“We can’t afford to build our way out of experiencing congestion. It’s just too expensive,” Kress said. “We’re going to have to learn to live with some congestion at peak travel hours.”

Highway planners use a model that attributes letter grades of A through F for roads. An A road is one that allows motorists to zoom unimpeded, while an F road becomes quite congested.

“For the urban area we will accept service D as the standard,” Kress said.

The big question raised by the draft is this: which sorts of projects will get funded?

Advocates for multi-modal systems feel that while their theory is accepted in city planning circles, the dollar amounts aren’t often delivered.

According to rough figures from Kress, 84 percent of the draft plan’s money will go to roadway improvement projects like the realignment of South Avenue out of Malfunction Junction, rehab of the intersection at Russell and Third (which will run around $30 million), and construction of a bridge over the Bitterroot River at South Avenue. Kress also notes that some money for associated bicycle and pedestrian improvements is included within that 84 percent.

Other moneys are targeted specifically for alternate improvements. The budget sets aside 10 percent for mass transit, 4 percent for non-motorized improvements and 2 percent to fund programs like Missoula in Motion, that raise public awareness for alternate modes of travel.

Of the 64 bicycle and pedestrian improvement projects identified as necessary by the city over the course of the past several years, 23 have made the cut into the draft, and are scheduled to be completed by 2025, Kress said.

Such projects include completion of the Bitterroot Branch Trail from North Avenue to Livingston Avenue, extension of the Milwaukee Trail to Reserve Street, and improvements to bicycle and pedestrian crossings at the south end of Brooks Street, where the roadway spans up to seven lanes—“ a pretty intimidating” stretch of concrete to negotiate, according to Kress.

Included in the draft are plans to increase funding for Mountain Line, which needs up to five new buses. Also in the plan is money to purchase new street sweepers to clean up sand laid down in winter, which should help the particulate problem.

The first 15 years of the plan will consume $115 million, while the following 10 years are projected to cost $182 million. Another $260 million worth of projects the city deems necessary won’t receive funding.

“We need to take a careful look to decide what to spend our money on,” Kress said. “We need to ask the public what they want to spend the money on. We hope to hear from the public during this comment period.”

Drafts of the Missoula Urban Transportation Plan Update will be available at the Office of Planning and Grants starting April 5, as well as online at

The review period for the draft will run 30 days, with a first open house taking place on April 6 from 5 p.m. until 6:45 p.m. in City Council chambers. A host of additional meetings will follow. For more information call 258-4657, or view the schedule on the above website.

A revised draft is due to the Transportation Policy Coordinating Committee on May 18.

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