Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With sticky dots and a team of attentive planners, Missoula residents on Thursday got a chance to weigh in on early plans to place a rapid-transit system on Brooks Street and set the stage for a new age of transit-oriented development.

The project coincides with efforts to address a number of issues along the corridor – a process that began back in 2015. The Brooks project received a boost in 2021 with an $850,000 planning grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the city is now working toward a design it can submit in pursuit of federal funding.

“We’ve spent the last six months laying the foundation for this project,” said Annette Marchesseault with the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “Our eventual goal is to seek federal funding, and you need to have a really well-laid foundation to do that.”

Representatives with HDR – the city’s contracted consultant – worked with members of the public at Thursday’s open house on certain sections of the project. As proposed, the transit route would run from Blue Mountain Road down Brooks Street to the Mountain Line transfer station in downtown Missoula.

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The “capital” portion of the project is proposed from Dore Lane to Kent Avenue, where the bus-rapid-transit system would operate on a center-running lane with stations poised at various locations.

But portions of the route lack the right-of-way to accommodate all aspects of the system. Whether it’s boulevard trees, sidewalks or bike lanes, sacrifices may be required.

“In some places, we don’t have adequate right-of-way to build out. If we don’t have enough right-of-way and there’s not enough will to buy right-of-way, what do we give up?” said Marchesseault. “After tonight, we’ll really start to dig into the more detailed design and come back with another public outreach project in the spring.”

The city and the Montana Department of Transportation faced similar right-of-way issues on Russell Street, where work is taking place to widen the corridor from two to four lanes. In that case, right-of-way was secured to accommodate the project.

Marchesseault said the planning efforts on Brooks Street will bring the project to 15% design and include a “ballpark” figure on cost. She said the study should be finished next summer when the project will seek federal funding.

Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines have been supportive, and they helped land the initial planning grant. While next year will include a presidential election, transportation funding is expected to retain bipartisan support.

“Historically, funding for federal transportation projects has been pretty popular on both sides of the aisle,” said Marchesseault. “We expect there will still be federal transportation funding. But it’s a competitive process, so we may need to apply several times.”

Transit-oriented development

Planning the conversion of the Brooks Street corridor into a rapid-transit system follows the recent adoption of the Midtown Master Plan. While each project addresses different issues, they share several common goals, primarily the challenges that Brooks Street presents.

The Brooks Street transit line would feed Midtown Junction, as envisioned in the Midtown Master Plan.
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The Brooks Street transit line would feed Midtown Junction, as envisioned in the Midtown Master Plan.
The roadway, built in a period of urban sprawl in the 1970s, is designed to move cars and little else. It’s difficult to cross, unsafe for cyclists and it makes redevelopment challenging. It’s also awash in large parking lots, though that also makes it a prime area for infill development at a density needed to support rapid transit.

In that sense, project backers believe the Brooks Street project may be the single biggest investment the city can make to launch a new age of redevelopment in the heart of Missoula. That includes opportunities to address the city’s acute hosing needs and grow the city’s economic base.

“It creates permanent transit stops and shows we’re going to be there for a long duration,” said Cory Aldridge, the general manager at Mountain Line. “By creating permanence there, it allows development to happen around it that supports transit. For us, it’s improving and moving the community, and improving the opportunity for development to happen around it.”

The Brooks project could also bolster the planning strategies outlined in the Midtown Master Plan. Among other things, the Midtown plan looks to place mixed-use residential development near transit stops.

An early rendering of Casa Loma.
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An early rendering of Casa Loma.
A number of housing projects, such as Casa Loma, are either planned or proposed along the Brooks Street corridor. Many of them are focused around what city planners have dubbed Midtown Junction (formerly Malfunction Junction). But with transit stops proposed for several intersections including Dore Lane, Schilling Street and Dixon Avenue, among others, opportunities abound throughout the corridor.

“This project isn’t just about a bus. This project is about complete streets that would have a bus and multiple transportation options,” said Marchesseault. “It’s transit-oriented development built around a bus-rapid transit system.”

Operating the system

To accommodate the rapid-transit system, Aldridge said stations would be placed at key locations within Brooks Street. Doing so would also address the permeability of Brooks, making it easier for pedestrians to cross without any significant impacts to traffic.

Mountain Line is currently building a new operations facility, and the Brooks rapid-transit system is central to the agency’s goals.

“It will have to be very fine-tuned for busses to meet at the stops to bypass each other,” Aldridge said. “It will have to either be three or four busses running along that route, two in each direction, and the timing will have to be such that they meet at the stops.”

Residents offer feedback on the Brooks Street project. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
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Residents offer feedback on the Brooks Street project. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
While the cost of the project hasn’t been pinned down, the city would provide a 20% match to whatever federal funding is awarded. That would likely come from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and Urban Renewal District III.

But in each of the last several years, MRA has had to provide the city a remittance to help it cover its annual budget, and District III has carried much of the weight. Some fear that if that trend continues, MRA won’t have the revenue to fund public-private projects within the district, or provide a match for the project itself.

“We understand this is a project that would transform Midtown,” said Marchesseault. “MRA would be the primary source for the local match. We’re planning for that. The thing that helps, while we might do an annual remittance, we have bonding capacity in the district.”

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