Missoula transportation plan envisions different travel modes – and costs

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By Martin Kidston

Missoula’s streets could see an additional 30,000 vehicle trips by 2045 if local officials opt to maintain the status quo rather than add resources to other travel modes, transportation officials said this week.

But if the city makes a modest investment in a so-called mode-split, that number would increase by only 2,200 vehicle trips, even as the population grows by an annual 1.5 percent, pushing the city’s population toward 100,000 residents.

“There are a lot of reasons to think about splitting mode shifts,” said Aaron Wilson, a transportation planner for the city. “It gives you an idea about reducing congestion, and what that would do if people made those decisions to shift to other modes.”

Members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization are currently updating the Long Range Transportation Plan – something the city is required to do every four years.

The plan implicates where the city will spend nearly $100 million in discretionary funding to improve the transportation system over the coming years. It could also shift the way Missoula residents get around, whether it’s by driving alone in a car, riding a bike or taking the bus.

Last May, the MPO held a workshop to get a taste of what Missoula residents want in a future transportation system. The groups received $100 million in poker chips and a list of projects with an assigned price tag.

The resulting breakdown saw $54 million go toward roadway projects and $27 million toward “active” projects, such as biking and walking. Roughly $13 million went to transit, while the rest went to safety improvements.

“It’s important to note that roadway projects are very expensive, so you may only get one or two roadway reconstruction projects for that money,” said Jessica Morriss, the city’s transportation planning manager. “All of the tables bought every single active transportation project we had on the list. Roadway capacity or lane additions were rarely selected.”

On their face, the results appear to run contrary to the findings of the 2015 Missoula Area Transportation Survey, where 52 percent of those polled said reducing traffic congestion would go the furthest in improving the local transportation system.

However, Morriss said, the workshop in May also found that residents believe there are better ways to reduce congestion than by building more lanes and wider roads. Investing in other transportation modes proved to be the preferred – and less expensive – option.

“There’s a recommendation in the growth policy to establish a mode-shift goal,” said Morriss. “The long range plan is a good avenue to do that.”

To gain a better understanding of current travel modes, transportation officials looked at various city neighborhoods. Those in the downtown district used a single-occupied vehicle less than 50 percent of the time, opting instead to commute by foot, bike or transit.

The number of people using vehicles to commute increased the farther from downtown one got. Nearly 82 percent of those living between South Avenue and 39th Street commuted by vehicle.

The results prompted the MPO to recommend three mode-split goals. One envisioned maintaining the current system where the majority of residents commuted by vehicle. A second goal sought to reduce the use of single-occupied vehicles to 50 percent by investing more in other options.

“The most ambitious goal was taking those existing mode splits and tripling them to 18 percent bike, 15 percent walk and 12 percent transit,” said Wilson. “That would result in an overall 34 percent single-occupancy vehicle usage.”

Wilson said each goal comes with implications. Given current growth projections, maintaining the status quo would result in 30,000 additional daily vehicle trips. The moderate goal would see an additional 2,200 daily trips, while the ambitious goal would result in 20,000 fewer vehicle trips each day.

On Thursday, Morriss and Wilson told the Transportation Technical Advisory Committee that a fourth mode-split goal had been added to the mix after concerns arose that transit was receiving too little attention, and too little money.

Under the new scenario, transit would receive up to 15.4 percent of discretionary transportation revenue.

“We’ve developed a fourth scenario that includes more of a transit emphasis,” Morriss said. “We’ve shifted some of the funding from safety or transportation options into additional transit funding to reach higher mode-shift goals.”traffic

While no decision has been made on what mode-shift scenario to pursue, each option impacts funding in a different way. Over the plan’s 30 years, transportation officials are projecting roughly $600 million in revenue, with roughly $98 million of that being discretionary.

Of that discretionary funding, $30 million goes to surface transportation. The remaining $67 million represents projected funding that can be allocated at the local level.

How that money is proportioned would impact future transportation mode shifts.

“We included local discretionary funding since it’s a big part of funding transportation in Missoula,” said Wilson. “It’s important to include all the resources and take a clear, regional look to come up with recommendations on how that could be spent.”

The city will host its third and final public meeting and open house on Oct. 20. The session will be held in City Council chambers from 5-7:30 p.m.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com