Dennis Gordon pushed his truck up to 25 miles per hour on a recent weekday morning, cruising down Mary Avenue past its intersection with Eaton Street. “Would you feel safe driving down here this fast?” he asked, before pointing to a pair of garbage cans perched on a snow berm along the right side of the road. Then he nodded ahead to the approaching roundabout at Clark Street, completed last year as part of a major project converting Mary into a collector street between Southgate Mall and Reserve Street.
“Look at any of the roundabouts in Missoula and they’ve got big reflector signs built right into them,” he said. “They didn’t put any in here.”
Gordon reiterated his concerns several days later during the public comment portion of Missoula City Council’s Jan. 8 meeting. He stated that the redesigned avenue, which opened to through-traffic Dec. 15, lost eight feet of width after bike sharrows shown in the initial conceptual design were removed (at the recommendation of the city’s Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Board). As a result, Gordon argued, the street is narrower in spots than the 20 feet required by city code—as little as 18 feet, according to his own measurements and copies of construction plans he obtained. The redesigned avenue is meant to accommodate up to 4,000 cars a day.
“I encourage Council to drive Mary Avenue to see the danger the street poses to your constituents,” he said at the meeting. “See if you would feel safe residing on Mary Avenue or driving the street at the posted 25 mile per hour speed limit.”
According to an email forwarded to the Indy by Ward 6 councilperson Michelle Cares, Missoula Assistant Fire Chief Gordy Hughes conducted an on-site inspection of Mary on Jan. 9 and concluded that the street “meets or exceeds the minimum fire code requirements” of 20 feet. Cares also confirmed that Mary has been elevated to a Priority Two street for city snow removal. She says she appreciates Gordon’s “tenacity,” but does not share his concerns regarding public safety.
“I feel like we’ve answered his questions and will continue to do so,” Cares adds.
Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, which steered the redesign’s public process, defends the finished product as well. The street was explicitly designed to slow traffic, she says, in response to concerns from residents along Mary.
“I think experience will tell all of us that posting a speed limit doesn’t dictate the speed limit,” Buchanan says. “Design of the street dictates how fast you feel comfortable driving.”
Though the Mary project attracted significant criticism in early 2017 due to fears of increased side-street traffic, neither Buchanan or Cares has heard from anyone dissatisfied with the finished project other than Gordon. Nonetheless, Gordon maintains that the street violates municipal code, and that it’s up to Council to take swift action to address constituent safety. If councilmembers don’t feel safe driving Mary at 25 mph themselves, he said Monday night, the street should be closed at the railroad tracks.