Back to the future

Between 1910 and 1932, according to local historian Allan Mathews, Missoulians could hop on a streetcar to get around town. But not many did, and then the automobile emerged. On the day of the last trolley run, January 24, 1932, The Daily Missoulian wrote, "In the 22 years of its operation, the railway has never paid a dollar on the investment...No one is at fault, no one to blame except, perhaps, the 95 percent of Missoula citizens who didn't patronize the cars while they were operating on regular schedules every day in the year...Even though they didn't patronize them while they were available, Missoula citizens undoubtedly regret to see the cars disappear."

More than a century after Missoula's streetcars first started to roll, the city finds itself considering another streetcar system for downtown, and commissioning a study to see if it might fare better than the first. Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, has led the effort to raise $30,000 for the feasibility study. Entities all over town are chipping in, including, so far, the MRA, Business Improvement District, Missoula Downtown Association, Mountain Line, University of Montana and Missoula County.

"It's been a really tremendous economic development tool in the cities that have moved forward with these things," Buchanan says of streetcars. "And in addition to that, it's a great people mover, especially if we can reasonably tie in the university, loop through downtown, St. Pat's—those areas that are employment centers...Ultimately the vision, I think, is to run it all the way to the airport."

A major economic development component in the Downtown Master Plan is the notion of fixed-route transit like streetcars, Buchanan says, "because once you lock a transit route down, people will invest in that can't change where it's going to go next week, because it's fixed." She points to Portland, Ore., where after its streetcar system was built, "investment within a block or two blocks of that streetcar just rose exponentially."

The Missoula County Commission voted unanimously last week to spend $5,000 on the streetcar study. "We voted for it because I think it'd be terrific if that penciled out," says Commissioner Bill Carey. "I think it'd be a huge improvement to downtown."

"I think public meetings will start sometime in October on the whole bailiwick," Buchanan says.

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