Missoula City Councilman Alex Taft understands that local traffic can be a heated issue. That's why the man who made a career as a transportation planner in Washington, D.C., before moving to Missoula nine years ago expects that some locals will not like his proposal to drop speed limits from 30 miles per hour to 25 across a sizable chunk of urban Missoula, including portions of Higgins Avenue and Orange, Brooks and Russell streets.
"People have strong opinions," Taft acknowledges.
In July, the first-term councilman raised some hackles when he sponsored a referral from Riverfront Neighborhood residents proposing to slim down Fifth and Sixth streets to make more room for cyclists and residential parking. While many in the Riverfront Neighborhood support the idea, which is now being studied by Missoula Development Services, some locals opined in emails to council and newspaper op-ed pieces that such changes unfairly favor cyclists over motorists.
Taft sees the Fifth and Sixth streets redesign as a way to improve safety for not just cyclists and pedestrians, but also drivers. Similarly, he says that lowering speed limits would curb accidents across the board.
Taft's new proposal calls for cutting speeds on Orange Street and Stephens Avenue between downtown Missoula and South Avenue; Fifth and Sixth streets from Higgins Avenue to Arthur Avenue; Brooks Street between Higgins and South; and also Higgins from Third Street to South. Council began discussing the proposal this week.
While Missoula has created more bike lanes, added new bus lines and promoted sidewalk construction in recent years, Taft says that speed limits have not been adjusted to suit the evolving landscape.
Missoula Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Bender served in the city's Public Works Department for 22 years, 10 of them as director, prior to assuming his current position in 2005. He agrees that Missoula's thoroughfares look significantly different than they did in the 1980s, when speed limits on many of the city streets that Taft is now targeting were increased from 25 mph to 30.
"We've encouraged pedestrian usage and connectivity," Bender says. "And along with that, bike lanes have been added."
Though the city has long supported expanding safe transportation options for cyclists and pedestrians, Bender notes that in order for Taft's proposal to take effect, it must be vetted by not only the public and the Missoula City Council, but also the Montana Department of Transportation, which is charged to help oversee city thoroughfares.
UPDATE: After the Independent went to press, the Missoula City Council Public Works Committee decided to evaluate speed limits citywide, rather than only studying whether to lower speed limits on the streets listed in this article. Council plans on holding public hearings on the issue during the coming weeks.