Billings’ historic railroad district has become the city’s entertainment center. With the beautifully renovated Northern Pacific depot as its centerpiece, Montana Avenue bustles with restaurants, retail, offices, technology, art galleries, theater and music. Renovated historic buildings on Minnesota Avenue house restaurants and loft apartments.
The railroad that created this thriving neighborhood also divides it. That is why 15 years ago downtown boosters proposed a pedestrian bridge to take people across the tracks safely and easily. The bridge they had in mind for this historic district was historic itself.
The metal bridge sitting outside Charles Ringer’s art studio in Joliet used to span Rock Creek at that Carbon County town. Erected in 1901 when traffic was horses and buggies, the bridge was replaced with a wider one in 1988.
The old bridge has been Ringer’s lawn ornament ever since.
He agreed 13 years ago to sell the 110-foot bridge to the city of Billings for $25,000. His price is still the same, Ringer told The Gazette this week.
“It’s extremely important to us that we connect Montana Avenue to Minnesota Avenue,” said Greg Krueger, a leader of the Downtown Alliance. “We’re chomping at the bit to get it done,” he said, adding that he expects “major development” to follow.
Bike trail ends
For now, a bike trail on South 25th Street ends at Minnesota Avenue. On the Montana Avenue side, 25th Street ends at a parking lot that serves downtown workers and visitors day and night.
The Downtown Billings Association, Downtown Billings Improvement District and Downtown Partnership support the bridge project. Once in place, the bridge will be maintained by the Downtown BID, Krueger said.
Although the bridge will serve pedestrians and bicyclists, it obviously would be handy for motorists, too. People could park on either side of the tracks and walk across to their destination. The bridge project will include lifts to make the bridge accessible for people with disabilities.
The bridge has had its critics over the years. That and obtaining funding are reasons the project hasn’t moved forward sooner. However, it has been vetted and approved by the City-County Planning Board, City Council, County Commission and the Policy Coordinating Council that must review all transportation projects involving federal funds.
Most of the $800,000 designated for this project is federal Community Transportation Enhancement Program money. Some funding comes from private foundations and local organizations including BikeNet, Sample Foundation, Scott Fund/US Bank and the Downtown Partnership.
The bridge surface is rusty, but it has been inspected and found structurally sound, according to Scott Walker, Billings transportation planner.
Last month’s City Council approval of agreements with Montana Rail Link, allows city staff to prepare to seek bids on the project. The actual installation of the bridge must coincide with MRL maintenance work and is likely to occur in mid- to late September, Walker said.
The project will come back to the City Council for approval of the construction and installation contract. We urge the council to support this long-awaited project to bring two old neighborhoods together for redevelopment and growth in both.