A preliminary decision to construct a traffic light at the Higgins/Hill/Beckwith intersection next summer wasn’t exactly an act of God, but it was a decision dictated largely by the parishioners of the Missoula Valley Church on the corner of Beckwith and Higgins. Final plans for the intersection still need to be approved by the city Department of Public Works and the state Department of Transportation, but for now the traffic signal looks to be getting a green light.
According to City Council member and Missoula Valley parishoner Bob Lovegrove, city engineers told the church that “our input would be the determining factor” in whether to build a light or a roundabout at the intersection. Lovegrove says church members voted a 10–1 majority in favor of a traffic light to manage the average flow of 15,000 cars per day going north/south on Higgins, and 5,000 a day traveling east/west on Mount and Beckwith.
“The opinion was so overwhelming,” says Lovegrove, because the roundabout would require the church to sell about 1,220 square feet of land to the city to accommodate its curve. It would also move the road closer to the church’s front door, interfering with parking-lot access and raising concerns about the safety of the congregation’s children.
“They are valid concerns,” says City Engineer Steve King, who presented the intersection alternatives at public meetings at Paxon School last year.
“We have to respect their decision,” says Council member Lou Ann Crowley, noting that traffic lights generate stop-and-go traffic, which builds up pollution. “The roundabout would have evened out the flow,” she says, “and supposedly it was going to be safer.”
According to Director of Public Works Bruce Bender, the 4-year-old University-area traffic circles have reduced vehicle crashes by 50 percent (a study of the Higgins/Beckwith/Hill intersection reported 12 accidents involving injuries from 1998–2001). He says other cities’ studies show that roundabouts reduce T-bone crashes that occur at lights.
But the trouble with a roundabout in Missoula, says church member Cody Witt, is that they’re foreign to us. “They don’t work in America,” he says. “The Europeans are used to them, and they can have them. But I don’t think you’re going to turn Bitterrooters into people who can drive around roundabouts.”