Just southwest of Reserve Street, Missoula proper collides with county living. Tract housing yields to homes with horse pastures, owners struggling to hold on to the country flavor that defines the area.
As Missoula’s doughy middle continues to press at its belt, urbanizing regions of the county that have traditionally provided rural atmosphere and room to run, federal and county officials are planning how to move future suburban traffic around.
Right now the top priority of that mission is to create another exit from new subdivisions in Miller Creek and Linda Vista by building a bridge over the Bitterroot River. While there are several alternatives for where the bridge will span the river, consultants studying the project are leaning toward a site that will line up with a proposed Highway 93 overpass at Blue Mountain Road.
Though residents of Miller Creek seem to be excited by the new bridge, a group of Blue Mountain Road residents feel certain that the move will funnel more traffic their way, and they’re worried that the connection could create a critical intersection for a future western bypass around the clogged streets of Missoula proper.
Two county residents, Blue Mountain’s Helen Orendain and Frenchtown’s Reed Smith, filed complaints in mid-December with the Environmental Protection Agency over the process of a draft environmental impact statement being developed by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and a consulting company out of Denver named Carter & Burgess.
Orendain and Smith feel they’ve been left out of the process, and that the scope of the DEIS, due this spring, won’t address the possible impacts to Blue Mountain Road and the nearby recreation area if the bridge-and-overpass proposal is implemented.
“Requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) are not being followed with respect to public notice, public participation and scoping,” Smith said in his complaint to the EPA.
“The EIS is being focused on a small project area, Miller Creek and Linda Vista subdivisions, when the intersection would, without a doubt, become a major element of the transportation system for the entire City of Missoula and surrounding area.”
Later in the complaint, Smith spells out how he feels the bridge and interchange at Blue Mountain will effect the Blue Mountain area.
“Traffic approaching Missoula from the Miller Creek/Linda Vista area and the Bitterroot Valley will have an opportunity to enter, via the new intersection, onto Blue Mountain Road, which motorists will take whenever there are signs that traffic is backing up on US 93…Blue Mountain Road is a narrow, winding road through a residential area and one of the largest recreation areas (Blue Mountain Recreation Area) readily available to the residents of Missoula and the surrounding area…Federal Highway Administration rules specifically require avoidance of recreation areas if at all possible.”
Federal Highway Administration engineer Craig Genzlinger disagrees with Smith’s perspective.
“We’re not limiting ourselves to the study area. That’s a misnomer that’s been there since the beginning,” Genzlinger said. “Cumulative and indirect impacts, like traffic, are certainly being analyzed. If we will cause an impact by this project it will be disclosed. We feel that we have complied with NEPA. We’ve had several open houses and a special meeting up on Blue Mountain.”
Genzlinger said perhaps people feel frustrated because there are no decisions made at the open houses, since they’re only forums for the exchange of information.
“There will be a public hearing that takes place where people can have their statements become part of the public record,” Genzlinger said. “That’ll be done once the draft environmental impact statement is out on the street and people get a chance to digest it.”
Carter & Burgess consultant Jeanette Lostracco, the deputy project manager on the DEIS, said that she hasn’t been hired to look at a western bypass, but she is examining likely impacts to Blue Mountain Road if the Miller Creek Bridge is put in.
“We are only looking at a second connection from Miller Creek to Highway 93. The project is not to look at a western bypass,” Lostracco said. “The county is saying that it is not in their plan, so we can’t assume it’s a viable project. Apparently it’s been discussed, but it’s not something we can review. Assuming Blue Mountain is the connecting point, we will look at indirect impacts of more traffic.”
Blue Mountain residents think that more traffic will ruin the area and make it harder to access the recreation area by bicycle and foot. But Lostracco has a different view.
“One indirect effect would be to improve access to the recreation sites,” Lostracco said. “The bridge crossing would have bike lanes and people in Miller Creek will be able to ride (to Blue Mountain). You might have less traffic if more people are on bikes.”
Lostracco said that Fish, Wildlife & Parks liked the idea as well, because it will allow for a new fishing access at the site and a trail along the river.
While Blue Mountain residents are genuinely worried that their winding river road could become a four-lane artery of the county road system, officials insist that the idea of a western bypass through the area is not in the cards, due to financial concerns and citizen outcry.
“No, there will not be a bypass. I want to spell that out in capital letters,” County Commissioner Barbara Evans said. “There is no money for a bypass [there] and they’ve made it very clear that they do not want a bypass. I’m not inclined for a bypass. I don’t care to have those folks come unglued.”
So is there a bypass in Missoula’s future? And if so, where will it go?
“The growth of Missoula is heading west to an area near Mullan Road,” Missoula County Public Works Director Greg Robertson said. “Reserve Street is getting ridiculous with traffic delays. I see a bridge in the vicinity of Flynn Lane to alleviate traffic woes. I’m sure it won’t be a popular idea, but the types of patterns developing on Reserve Street won’t carry the volumes expected of it as growth moves west.”