Missoula Chamber voices opposition to proposed Fifth, Sixth street lane reduction

In opposing the proposal to reduce Fifth and Sixth streets to a single lane of traffic, the Missoula Chamber of Commerce said development either planned or taking place in key parts of Missoula will require strong east-west connections. (Missoula Current file photo)

The Missoula Chamber of Commerce is voicing opposition to a city proposal that could reduce Fifth and Sixth streets to a single lane of traffic, saying a healthy business environment requires an efficient transportation network.

The chamber’s official position comes nearly three years after the Missoula City Council added roughly $20,000 to the budget to complete a traffic study on the two east-west routes between Higgins Avenue and Russell Street.

While the City Council has not yet made a decision on the issue, the chamber has deemed the lane reduction a poor idea, saying both Fifth and Sixth streets play an important role in the city’s transportation network and will be needed to handle traffic from additional development.

“While it may be that 5th and 6th streets are currently operating below full capacity, the growth we’re now seeing in the areas surrounding these streets should increase their use,” said Clint Burson, the chamber’s director of government affairs. “It’s important that workers, customers and delivery trucks have full capacity available from these roadways to move back and forth across town.”

Burson said development either planned or taking place in key parts of Missoula will require east-west connections. Among them, growth in the Midtown district and the planned reconfiguration of Russell Street, which is underway, will require Fifth and Sixth to remain at two lanes.

Additional growth in the Old Sawmill District, a new library and student housing on Front Street – as well as the planned redevelopment of the Riverfront Triangle – could also lead to increased traffic on Fifth and Sixth as motorists look for routes across the city, Burson said.

Other lane reductions haven’t worked out as planned, he added.

“The West Broadway reconfiguration has caused congestion and stacking at intersections, which has pushed traffic onto formerly quiet neighborhood streets north of Broadway,” Burson said. “This has created new problems and diminished safety and quality of life on those streets.”

The City Council has been presented with a number of options that include painting the roads for a single lane of traffic, or leaving the roads as they are. A recent study found that both roadways are operating below capacity and could be eyed for two-way traffic at some point in the future, though that could take considerable funding to reconfigure various intersections.

Proponents of a lane reduction, including residents of the Riverfront Neighborhood, have said vehicle speeds are too high and parking is both dangerous and a challenge. Other proponents believe bicycle and pedestrian safety are an issue.

As it stands, the preferred alternative includes a single-lane option that maintains much of the parking on both sides of the two streets. It also eliminates one lane of traffic and converts it to a wide, buffered bicycle lane.

While residents favor the reduction, several businesses, including the Orange Street Food Farm, have expressed opposition to the plan. The chamber joined them last week in a letter to the City Council.

Though Burson said the chamber is sensitive to the concerns of the Riverfront Neighborhood, the unknowns of a conversion – and the costs – outweigh the perceived benefits. And once a lane is lost, Burson said, it will be hard to get it back.

“With limited funds for transportation improvements, we feel the money could be better spent on projects with a greater need,” Burson said. “Especially when the full capacity of two lanes could be needed in the coming years due to increased development within the city.”