For those who couldn’t quite picture what the Billings bypass will look like once it’s constructed, the Montana Department of Transportation provided a flyover during a Wednesday evening open house.
The large crowd in attendance at Bitterroot Elementary School didn’t actually climb aboard an aircraft to take the tour. Rather, a computer simulation took attendees on a virtual flyover of the preferred route for the bypass, which will connect Interstate 90 east of Billings with Old Highway 312.
Attendees could also speak with transportation officials about concerns or questions about the 593-page Final Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed bypass, released last month.
Benefits to constructing the bypass, according to the document, include connecting the Heights with the Lockwood area, increasing mobility to and from the Heights and improving truck access to and through Billings.
Wednesday’s two-hour open house was designed to educate the public on the project, said Stefan Streeter, the MDT’s district administrator, as well as to explain the process for arriving at the preferred alternative.
That option, the Mary Street Option 2 Alternative, begins at the Johnson Lane interchange with I-90 and includes two bridges — one over the train tracks, and a second over the Yellowstone River, before connecting with Old Highway 312.
According to the flyover, most of the route is over agricultural ground, with the last two miles or so skirting a residential neighborhood.
The route will take three to five years to design, Streeter said. The current plan is to build it in two phases — an initial two-lane route estimated to cost $82.1 million, including design costs and property acquisition, and another $29 million when the other two lanes are added later. That will bring the total estimated cost to $111.1 million, as measured in 2012 dollars.
About $89.5 million in funding has already been identified to pay for the project, more than enough to cover the first phase of construction.
The project cannot move forward, Streeter said, until the Federal Highway Administration issues a Record of Decision on the preferred alternative.
He offered no estimate when that decision will be made.
The preferred alternative has run into political opposition from residents who live along the terminus of the bypass on Mary Street. Rep. Clayton Fiscus, a Republican who represents House District 43 in the Montana Legislature, wore a red “Save Mary” badge to the open house.
The Save Mary group prefers a route that never made the final cut. It runs north of the preferred alternative through an abandoned gravel pit.
“We strongly oppose using Mary Street as a truck route through a residential area,” the group argued on a flyer it distributed. “It lacks common sense.”
“It’s a bad idea, and it’s destructive” of the Mary Street neighborhood where Fiscus lives and represents his constituents, he said as he stood outside the open house distributing literature and talking to people as they entered the school.
According to the final EIS, by 2035, the preferred alternative will decrease average daily traffic in the area studied by 29 percent and reduce accidents by 12 percent.
But it will also impact 13 homes, one commercial structure and nearly five acres of wetlands.
The document states that the bypass will decrease traffic by at least 10 percent on a half-dozen roadways, including Old Highway 312 from Main Street to Five Mile Road, Mary Street from Bench Boulevard to Five Mile Road, Main Street from First Avenue to Old Highway 312 and Bench Boulevard from Main Street/Sixth Avenue to Mary Street.
The final EIS says that the increased mobility the bypass will bring about “would likely expedite already planned growth, including subdivisions and retail.”
But it’ll also “destroy our quality of life,” said Kristine Oostermeyer, who lives with her husband, Tony, along Mary Street. The preferred alternative will include at least two acres of the Oostermeyer property.
“It will affect our day-to-day living,” she said, adding that information about the project’s impact on school bus routes and garbage pickup remains undetermined.