Irons in the fire

| April 17, 2008
A $3.1 million study released March 14 by the Federal Highway Administration calls a plan to overhaul the intersection at Miller Creek Road and U.S. Highway 93 the “preferred” solution to traffic problems on Missoula’s southwest side. Yet, many residents from that neck of the city—who have long clamored for a bridge over the Bitterroot River as an alternative route out of the Miller Creek area—beg to differ.

Last week that opposition gained a hard-driving ally: the Missoula Country Club. It’s not a missing bridge, however, that has the links folk hurling mangled drivers into the water trap, but rather the eternally-weedy issue of eminent domain.

In addition to revamping the Miller Creek-93 intersection, the federally selected plan would widen Old U.S. Highway 93 to four lanes. That part of the deal, golfers say, would take a bite out of two fairways bordering the thoroughfare.

“The Club actually has a pretty small course. We don’t have a lot of wiggle room,” says Janet Stevens-Donahue, a Club board member and retired municipal administrator. “The more that they take away the harder it is for us to operate as an 18-hole.”

Country clubbers opposed to the traffic plan began encouraging other members to write the Highway Administration in protest. The latest public comment tally by the feds shows 103 complaints compared to 37 pledges of support.

The Highway Administration responds that project selection is not a popularity contest. The current proposal is the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars to alleviate traffic congestion in the area, the administration says. Agency officials would not comment on the eminent domain issues, but spokesperson Nancy Singer argues that those tend to pop up regardless of the project.

The preferred project identified by the report carries the lowest pricetag of all the alternatives examined, which would typically sound dandy to taxpayer advocates. Even so, critics, like Missoula Councilman Dick Haines, say a $3.1 million study that leaves so many unanswered questions still proves fiscally wasteful. He argues that alternative proposals, several of which involved a bridge over the Bitterroot, failed to garner due federal consideration.

“People should be pretty disappointed,” says Haines, one of two council members representing the southwest side. “Put all the alternatives out there and let the public respond.”

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