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Interchange changes

Orange and Van Buren exits slated for major overhauls

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Rich Eggers has a good view of the intersection where Interstate 90, North Orange Street, North Fifth Street and North Third Street meet from Montana Preferred Provider, the medical marijuana dispensary he owns on Fifth Street—and what Eggers sees is ugly. There's traffic backed up all the way to the interstate during peak hours. He watches drivers run stop signs and wait long periods to make left turns. Once, Eggers says he watched a car wait 20 minutes to cross Orange Street. Eggers sees the delays turn into frustration and the frustration turn into reckless driving.

"So it's a mess," Eggers says. "Definitely."

In an effort to clean up the mess, the Montana Department of Transportation is planning a complete overhaul of the Orange Street interchange next summer. When it's complete, a roundabout will be set where Orange and the interstate's two eastbound ramps currently meet. In addition, Fifth Street will no longer connect with Third Street and will instead feed into the roundabout. Along with the changes to the traffic flow, plans also call for the creation of a new shared-use bike and pedestrian trail that will cross the eastbound on-ramp, run underneath the interstate overpass and connect Third Street to the North Hills trailhead located just past the end of Orange.

"There's a lot of benefit to adding the roundabout and, additionally, adding Fifth Street," says MDT engineer Shane Stack, who has been working on the project's design. "I think it's going to be easier for people to get in and out."

In the summer of 2017, once the Orange Street project is complete, MDT plans to move down I-90 and begin work reconfiguring the Van Buren interchange. When that project's complete, two roundabouts—one at Van Buren's intersection with each pair of on-ramps—will move motor vehicles between the Lower Rattlesnake, the interstate and East Broadway. Plans also call for new bike and pedestrian paths, as well as for a series of noise-dampening walls north of the highway. Stack says changes to Orange will cost approximately $2 million, while the more substantial Van Buren project will run about $7 million.

The Montana Department of Transportation plans to begin work next - summer on a major overhaul of the Orange Street interchange with I-90, - including the addition of a roundabout. In 2017, a similar project is set for the Van Buren interchange. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MDT
  • photo courtesy of MDT
  • The Montana Department of Transportation plans to begin work next summer on a major overhaul of the Orange Street interchange with I-90, including the addition of a roundabout. In 2017, a similar project is set for the Van Buren interchange.

The plan for reconfiguring both interchanges comes more than a decade after MDT began a comprehensive study of long-term capacity issues along I-90 from the Wye to Bonner. While that study didn't turn up the need for changes along the interstate itself, it found the Van Buren and Orange interchanges insufficient for handling future projected volume, if not current traffic.

"So we knew that the interchanges needed to be improved and better access onto both Orange Street and Van Buren," Stack says. "The next piece was going out to the public and saying, 'Well, we know we need to do intersection improvements. And what would you like to see?' And overwhelmingly, we were told by the community that they wanted to see roundabouts. In addition to that, they wanted single-lane roundabouts."

MDT has solicited insight from neighborhood councils, property owners, the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board and other groups. Missoula City Councilman Bryan von Lossberg was among those who provided MDT with input about how the Orange Street interchange could be improved and who favored roundabouts as the best solution. According to von Lossberg, who lives on the Northside, "everyone that lives over here is acutely aware that that intersection feels very unsafe." A roundabout, he says, offers the best means for making it safer.

"The traffic circle will act as a traffic-calming and a speed-reducing feature in an area where I've definitely seen cases, just about every day, where that would be a help," von Lossberg says.

While Bob Giordano, director of the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation, has some concerns about design features that could encourage motor vehicles to exit the roundabouts quickly, he believes they'll improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians.

"I see roundabouts fitting into a more human, pedestrian-scale urban cityscape—if they're designed well," Giordano says.

Though it's likely traffic will be disrupted as work begins at Orange Street next summer, Stacks says the aim is for the contractor to approach the project "in such a way that the interchange stays open" during construction. Whether or not that proves possible, von Lossberg believes temporary disruptions will be worth it.

"I've talked about it with a number of constituents in the area and I haven't heard anyone who is not pretty excited by the idea of change coming to that intersection," von Lossberg says. "I think there's a lot of hope."

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