A long-overdue conversation on Billings transportation needs took place recently when the committee representing city, county and state decision makers confronted the need for another route up the Rims.
The Policy Coordinating Committee provided a forum for County Commission Chairman Jim Reno to promote the idea of resurrecting a 10-year-old study of building a road just west of the Ironwood subdivision to follow the railroad right of way up the cliff to Highway 3. That feasibility study is still good, county transportation planner Scott Walker said. The president of the Rimrock Neighborhood Task Force voiced support for the project.
The recent monthslong closure of Zimmerman Trail increased the popularity of building a far-west route.
“Zimmerman Trail should be a historic road,” Reno said last week. “It was never intended as a truck route. Today, you could have a school bus meet an oil tanker.”
Recent rock slides onto Zimmerman Trail and the extreme difficulty of making that road any wider should also make the city of Billings reconsider its long-term plan for the Inner Belt Loop. The first link in the loop was completed when Skyway Drive opened last month. The new two-lane road between Wicks Lane and Alkali Creek Road provides a alternate connection to the Skyview High School neighborhood that previously had only one route in or out (through Wicks Lane and Governors Boulevard).
The first mile of the planned 6-mile loop cost $2.1 million, all paid by the city. The city’s five year Capital Improvement Plan does not include funding for the rest of the loop, which currently is planned to climb out of Alkali Creek west of Rehberg Ranch Estates subdivision and meet Highway 3 at Zimmerman Trail.
There isn’t much point in having this loop connect with Zimmerman Trail. Transportation plans should take pressure off that steep, curving trail that closes frequently for ice, snow and falling rock. A route farther west and a belt loop farther west would be a more practical alignment.
At the Policy Coordinating Committee meeting, Mayor Tom Hanel raised an important question when he asked about upgrading a dangerous intersection on Molt Road. In fact, miles of Molt Road need improvement for safety.
No money for road
But Stefan Streeter, state DOT district manager, trumped all Rimrock route concerns when he cogently asked where the money will come from for a project estimated to cost upwards of $20 million.
All major transportation projects in our community have been funded primarily with federal tax dollars. Earmarks helped finance the reconstruction of Airport Road, Bench Boulevard and Shiloh Road, but are no longer available from Congress.
The Highway Trust Fund that supports 87 percent of all Montana highway construction is nearly broke. In August, the trust won’t have enough money to distribute promised funds to states.
At the end of September, the transportation system reaches another fiscal cliff when the Highway Bill expires.
All three members of Montana’s congressional delegation should be leaders in supporting a long-term fix for the trust fund, and in moving a new Highway Bill forward. As a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Steve Daines has a front seat vantage point to get crucial legislation passed. The best plan so far is a proposal for a modest increase in the 18.4-cent per gallon gas tax that hasn’t been raised since 1993.
America needs to upgrade its roads, bridges and connections for commuters, pedestrians and cyclists. We are falling behind. Thousands of Montana jobs are at stake; the safety of the traveling public is at risk.
And right here in Billings, our growing community won’t have the money to improve Rims traffic flow — unless the Highway Trust Fund is solvent and a new Highway Bill becomes law.