By the slimmest of margins — 5-4, with 1 abstention and one council member absent — the Billings City Council on Monday approved a construction and maintenance agreement that will lead to the building of a pedestrian bridge connecting Minnesota Avenue to Montana Avenue at North 25th Street.
Voting against the project, estimated to cost $1,174,000 were council members Brent Cromley and Mike Yakawich, both Ward 1 representatives where the bridge will be located, as well as council members Al Swanson and Shaun Brown. Council member Angela Cimmino abstained.
Joining Mayor Tom Hanel in support of the project were council members Denis Pitman, Becky Bird, Jani McCall and Ken Crouch. Council member Rich McFadden was not in attendance.
Cromley said he spent 30 minutes each day for three days last week counting pedestrians and cyclists trying to get across the tracks “and didn’t see any.” He also noted there’s only about $822,000 to pay for the project. The rest of the funding will come from Community Transportation Enhancement Program funds. Final cost of the project won’t be known until it’s bid in May.
The bridge will include a pair of lifts to carry people with bicycles or people with disabilities across the train tracks.
Cromley said he feared that the crossing “will come into disrepair from non-use, and the city will be on the hook” for upkeep. The lifts will be “very attractive” for youth to use, he said, recalling how he used to love to ride a new escalator in his community when he was a boy.
Yakawich said that spending “$1 million on a project that I can walk in 10 minutes to the other side, I just wonder if that’s a good use of our resources.”
Wyeth Friday, the city’s planning division manager, said Montana Rail Link, which operates trains inside the city, has provided “an exceptionally good cooperative effort … getting us to this point quicker than we had anticipated.”
Yakawich wondered if the company had been asked to help cover the expense of constructing the bridge, an answer that city officials couldn’t immediately provide. The bulk of the construction cost is coming from Montana Department of Transportation funds.
Vern Heisler, the city’s deputy public works director, said that he’s been involved “in a number of projects with MRL, and the costs have always been borne by the city.”
The council voted 9-1, with Pitman voting no, to approve an $86,025 parking strategic plan by the Kimley-Horn design consulting firm. Assistant city administrator Bruce McCandless said the plan should be complete in four months and will include on-street as well as off-street parking. The process will include garnering input from the community, detailing a written plan and providing follow-up after the plan’s been approved by the city council.
Tax abatement votes
The council approved tax exemptions to three companies who have added space to their operations and employees as a result of the expansion. The three companies – Big Horn Resort, True North Steel and 360 Office Solutions – will receive an estimated $50,500 in tax abatements over the next five years.
During public hearings on the tax abatements, Billings residents Kevin Nelson and Tom Zurbuchen urged the council not to allow what Nelson called “corporate welfare.”
“If it’s good for business, let’s abate everybody’s taxes,” Nelson suggested. “Imagine the prosperity we’d have in Billings.”
Zurbuchen said the council can be “arbitrary and capricious” approving or denying companies’ tax abatement requests. “It’s not whether they meet the qualifications,” he said, “it’s whether you accept their application.”
Steve Arveschoug, executive director of Big Sky Economic Development Authority, called tax abatement “one of the few tools we bring to bear” in a “very competitive region.”
“All three are existing community businesses. They’re making an investment and growing, and they’re adding jobs,” he said. “There’s a limit on how we can help existing businesses grow.”