Plans are steaming ahead for a new road that will cross the Yellowstone River near Lockwood and enter the Heights alongside Mary Street.
But a group of neighbors who would be affected — in some cases displaced — by the project are still hoping to derail it.
"We're going to do everything we can to fight this thing," said Brent Cathey, who lives at 1705 Mary St., just outside city limits east of Bitterroot Drive.
On Wednesday, Cathey sent local officials copies of a petition bearing the signatures of 391 people opposed to what is known as the Billings bypass project.
"A bypass by definition is outside of town, not through an established neighborhood like this one," Cathey said.
Cathey said he and many others who signed the petition were most upset because they learned only recently of plans to build the new road through their neighborhood, which is in the far northeast corner of the Heights.
The project would result in the demolition of his house, located on 12 acres, and 12 other houses on both sides of the river. Neighbors who won't be displaced worry about noise, heavy truck traffic, destruction of wetlands and loss of property value.
Ward 2 City Councilman Denis Pitman, who represents the Heights, said various plans for a road that would cross the Yellowstone River, linking the Lockwood area to the Heights and routes to the north and west, have been talked about for 15 years.
"We have looked at this every which way but Sunday," he said. "This shouldn't be a surprise to a lot of people. The surprise is that it's going to be completed a lot sooner than some people thought."
It's true that long-range plans, some of them verging on pie-in-the-sky, have been circulating for years. But the project now being pursued came together rather quickly.
Plans originally called for building the Outer Belt Loop, which would have been a northern route around the city of Billings, part of the Camino Real International Trade Route Corridor between Canada and Mexico. It was projected to cost upwards of $200 million.
The Billings bypass is a greatly scaled-down version of that project. The biggest change was moving the eastern connection from near the interchange of Interstates 90 and 94 to Johnson Lane in Lockwood.
From there, the route would run north along Johnson Lane and Coulson Road, cross the railroad tracks by bridge and continue northwest to the Yellowstone River. It would cross the river by another bridge, then curve around to connect with the Mary Street corridor.
The new road would have a 160-foot right of way just north of Mary Street, and Mary would remain as a local access road. The new road would terminate at Old Highway 312 where it meets Main Street and Highway 87.
Scott Walker, the transportation planner in the city-county Planning Department, said the bypass would be "more of a local connector," though it could form the first leg of the Outer Belt Loop, if it is ever built.
The bypass initially would be only two lanes, with enough right of way to expand to four lanes in the future. The reduction from four lanes to two also explains why the cost of the bypass is still often mentioned as being $112 million. When the plans were pared down, the price tag was cut to $90 million.
Plans for the scaled-down bypass moved forward after the Billings City Council, the Yellowstone County Commission and the state Department of Transportation agreed to commit all allocations of local highway dollars to the Billings bypass through 2020.
By promising to do that, the project became "fiscally constrained," which meant that all necessary funding was in place and planning could go forward.
Most of the congressional earmarks for the original belt loop are still in place and at this point constitute the only cash in hand.
Those earmarks total about $18 million, minus the $3 million already spent on an environmental impact study. Local money pledged to the project totals $25 million and comes from Surface Transportation Program and air-congestion funds. The state's pledge is $40 million, from national highway, interstate maintenance and highway bridge funds.
Despite all the publicity the various projects have given over the years, Cathey said he knew nothing of a possible Mary Street route until May 2011, when he got a letter from the state, asking for access to his property as part of the environmental study.
At Cathey's request, state officials, consultants and others met with a group of neighbors at Cathey's house in June of that year. The officials answered a lot of questions and supplied some information, but Cathey and his neighbors still felt left out.
They said they were never notified of public meetings on the project, one in 2010 and one earlier in 2011. They asked to see the mailing list of those who were notified of the meetings, but Cathey said this week that they still haven't seen that list.
Lori Ryan, a spokeswoman for the department, said nearby residents aren't automatically notified of road projects. However, the department's website about the bypass project says a newsletter went out to nearly 1,300 landowners in 2006, and it included a postcard that people could send to the state if they wanted to be on the mailing list. Other people got on the list by signing up during public meetings.
At any rate, Cathey said he and his neighbors didn't mobilize until after a public meeting in Lockwood on Sept. 12, where the preferred option — known as Mary Street Option 2 — was formally unveiled.
They gathered petition signatures and formally submitted comments on the impact study. The comment period for that closed Monday, but Cathey said Wednesday that state Rep. Doug Kary, R-Billings, whose district takes in much of the Mary Street area, persuaded the state to continue taking comments for another week.
Kary, who said he prefers the Five Mile Creek route that was one of the bypass options, told The Gazette that comments submitted now won't be part of the official EIS process, but will be considered by the department.
Ryan, the department spokeswoman, said technically the comment period wasn't reopened, and there is no deadline for submitting new comments. She said the department is always receptive to comments about projects.
She said the best way to comment is by visiting the department website — www.billingsbypass.com — and clicking on the "comment" button. The site also has updates on the project.
Walker said plans now are to break ground for the project in 2017 and have it completed by 2022.
Walker also said that while all local highway funding is committed to the bypass through 2020, that doesn't mean local authorities can't continue to pursue grants or new funding sources for other projects.
"We hope to backfill," he said.
Cathey said he and his neighbors, though left out of the earlier stages of the planning process, plan to make their voices heard now. He said the petition will help demonstrate to elected officials that the bypass is not universally popular.
"We're going to educate them on the fact that 100 percent of the Heights is not behind it," he said.