MISSOULA — While the Montana Department of Transportation wraps up the rehabilitation of Beartracks Bridge in downtown Missoula, local transportation planners are exploring possible changes to Higgins Avenue, both north and south of the bridge.
In the past, talk of reducing Higgins from four lanes to two from Brooks Street to Broadway has bounced around. More recently, the concept was punctuated in the new Downtown Master Plan, which envisioned a return of the trolley, dedicated bike lanes, and one lane of traffic in each direction.
“It put some potential ideas out there, but it didn’t land on a recommendation of what we should do,” city transportation planner Aaron Wilson said. “We’re looking at that last remaining portion from Brooks to Broadway, straddling either side of the bridge.”
The city approved a $200,000 contract with Kittelson and Associates in April to explore the roadway’s future in a way that accommodates a wider range of needs. The stretch of Higgins is tight and doesn’t function well, planners have said, including a prohibition on left turns at certain times of the day and a narrow roadway.
Issues over safety have also surfaced. Several bicyclists have been injured on the street in recent years, including a prominent accident last summer. Portions of Higgins lack a place for cyclists to ride, and it accommodates a large number of students walking to and from Hellgate High School.
“The goal is to develop a concept for a really multi-modal street that serves all the users and creates that postcard street for Higgins, creating that gateway into downtown,” Wilson said. “We want to move pretty quickly to put us in a position for federal funding.”
Wilson said transportation and planning officials have met with area property owners, businesses and residents to drum up engagement and ultimately win support for any proposed changes. They’re also conducting data on traffic and developing alternatives.
A final concept is expected early next year.
“We’ve got some objectives,” Wilson said. “One is to make sure we engage the business owners and residents along the corridor. We want to develop a concept that improves safety, considers all users, and provides a space that’s a destination.”
The downtown plan suggests that Higgins must transform into a “people place” in order for the Hip Strip to thrive. It states that other corridors, including Orange, Madison and Broadway, already serve in getting vehicles downtown.
Transportation studies dating back to the 1960s suggest the number of vehicles crossing the Higgins Avenue bridge hasn’t changed much in more than 50 years. Current traffic counts place the daily number of vehicles at around 16,000.
A number of development projects are either planned or underway in the area, including a new condominium project and the eventual redevelopment of the Missoulian property. The Brooks Street corridor is also moving toward redevelopment, which could impact traffic patterns on Higgins down the road.
“It’s not just a highway thru-corridor,” Wilson said of Higgins. “It’s a destination as well, and we need to think about it that way. It has a lot of competing needs.”
Members of the City Council and Metropolitan Planning Organization have expressed support for changes.
“It needs to be done. I do think there’s been a lot of notice,” said council member Gwen Jones. “It’s time to bring the Hip Strip into the 21st century.”