MDT details $56 million in transportation projects slated for Missoula over next few years

By Martin Kidston

Members of the City Council expressed general support Wednesday for the Montana Department of Transportation’s plans to invest nearly $56 million in road, bridge and trail improvements across Missoula over the coming year.

Several of the projects have already begun, including a $3 million effort to construct a five-legged roundabout at the intersection of Orange Street and Interstate 90. Others, like the $32 million rebuild of Russell Street, are scheduled to begin next year.

Shane Stack, a preconstruction engineer with MDT, detailed the agency’s projects before the City Council’s Public Works Committee. He said the state is investing heavily in the city’s transportation network – an effort to keep pace with growth and, in the case of the Madison Street Bridge, to replace crumbling infrastructure.

“We’re spending a total of $56 million over the next few years,” said Stack. “It’s pretty impressive. The nice thing is, we’re making improvements to all modes. We’re considering cyclists, pedestrians and transit, and the motor vehicle users.”

The largest of the planned projects will widen Russell Street from three lanes to five between West Broadway and Dakota Street. The improvements, set to begin next spring, include sidewalks, raised bike lanes, dedicated turn lanes and bus stops.

The work also will include trail connections below a new Russell Street Bridge on both sides of the river. The Milwaukee Trail will cross below Russell Street at its current location.

“Right now, the at-grade crossing works well,” Stack said of the Milwaukee Trail. “But when you make Russell a five-lane system, it won’t work nearly as well.”

The project will bring other changes to the corridor as well, Stack said. Wyoming Street will become signalized, making it easier to move traffic out of the Old Sawmill District onto Russell. River Road will allow only right turns once the work is finished.

The project also includes raised medians.

“It’s a lot of money the state is investing in Missoula right now,” said Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley. “The improvements are part of the progress you see taking place across our community.”

MDT also has awarded an $8 million contract to Frontier West and Morrison-Maierle to rehabilitate the Madison Avenue Bridge. Portions of the structure were closed to pedestrians in February after holes appeared in the sidewalk.

Stack said work below the bridge will start in November and move to the roadway in January, at which time traffic will be redirected to one half of the bridge.

“The contractor is going to make sure the Kim Williams Trail stays open,” Stack said. “They’ll put some sort of structure up protecting trail users. It should remain open for the entire time.”

Once finished, the travel lanes will become narrower, though the sidewalks will be widened to 6 feet and the bike lanes to 5 feet. The project includes black iron railing and light poles. The University of Montana logo will decorate the structure’s pilasters.

A new public trail is also being considered with the project. As envisioned, it would follow along the east side of Madison across a parking lot currently used by the Double Tree Hotel. Stack said a portion of the hotel’s parking lot sits in the public right-of-way.

“They’re concerned about the loss of parking,” Stack said. “We’re going to survey it and know exactly where it (the right-of-way) is. We believe it’s public through there, but we want to confirm it.”

Work to replace the traffic signals at eight downtown locations has also begun. The $1.5 million contract, awarded to Montana Lines, Inc., will upgrade the technology that controls signals to improve downtown traffic flow.

Stack said a dedicated turning arrow will make it easier for north-bound motorists to turn left off Higgins Avenue onto Broadway. New technology will also talk and vibrate, alerting those with vision or hearing impairment when it’s safe to cross the street.

Other projects are also moving forward.

“In the early to mid-2000s, Missoula was growing rapidly, and so we took a close look at the interstate,” Stack said. “What we found was, long term, our interstate capacity looks pretty good. The only two locations that we found issues was at the Orange and Van Buren interchanges.”

To address those changes, MDT has launched a $3 million project to build a five-legged roundabout at Orange Street. Plans to construct two roundabouts at Van Buren will begin late next year and cost roughly $7 million.

“There’s so may aspects to this intersection (Orange and North Third Street) that are incredibly dangerous,” said Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossburg. “This is a massive improvement.”

Stack said MDT also plans to rehabilitate the Higgins Avenue Bridge, though work isn’t slated to begin until 2020. While the $11 million project remains in design, Stack said it will widen sidewalks on the bridge’s western half to 13 feet and provide a better connection to Caras Park.

It could also bring changes to the Third Street intersection south of the bridge.

“The negative of all this construction is that it’s construction,” Stack said. “The positive is, you’ll get it done over a few summers. At the end of it, you’ll have quite a few improvements done.”

While the projects will likely impact traffic over the next few years, Bentley urged patience.

“It’s important we don’t let these kinds of construction projects get the better of us,” she said. “It’s worth it. These improvements are just that – improvements.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com