Over the past decade, Billings has built a trail system that is now used by an average of 200 to 300 people daily for walking, running or biking.
These trails make Billings a more attractive place to live and offer opportunities for residents to be more physically active and healthy.
Need for exercise
Goodness knows we need the exercise. Nearly two-thirds of Yellowstone County adults are overweight, with half of those folks being obese, according to a survey conducted last fall for RiverStone Health, Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare. Yellowstone County residents also were less likely than average Americans to meet recommended guidelines for regular physical activity.
The trails that can get us moving have been constructed mostly with federal funds. Without the Community Trail Enhancement Program, there would not be a Billings trail system. Well, CTEP is no more. It has been replaced by the Transportation Alternatives program in which the state of Montana rather than local communities must determine how pedestrian/bike project money is allocated.
And the TA program’s future is uncertain. The federal transportation bill is due to be reauthorized this year.
So it’s time for people who support trails and those who think it’s best to make community decisions in the community to speak up.
The CTEP program provided about $600,000 annually to Yellowstone County. The money was allocated through a public process that involved public meetings and presentations to the City Council and County Commission. BikeNet and the city of Billings provided matching funds for projects.
This year, the state allocated $7 million through the TA program. One Billings project was among 23 approved statewide by the Montana Department of Transportation.
The grant of $364,909 in federal funds will build a multi-use trail along the north side of Broadwater Avenue, connecting trails on 32nd Street West and Shiloh Road. This will make foot and bike travel safer for commuters and exercisers and for students going to Will James Middle School.
Two other Billings proposals didn’t make the cut. One would have added pedestrian crossings, sidewalks and a bike path along Laurel Road, which presently has no pedestrian/bike safety infrastructure. The other proposal would have started building a trail west from the airport roundabout.
We don’t doubt that the projects funded statewide are good projects. But it is important for Yellowstone County residents to understand that in spreading the money across the state, the MDT did not consider allocation according to population.
Those of us who support trails in Montana’s largest urban area must support a change in the present system.
It’s uncertain what the bike/pedestrian transportation safety program will be next year. It depends on what Congress does this year.
Now is the time to tell Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh and Rep. Steve Daines that we support continued funding of bike and pedestrian projects. We support moving fund allocation decisions to the local level where people who live in the communities can decide what will work best for them. We support alternative transportation programs that recognize the needs of both urban and rural areas.
Now that you’ve finished reading this Gazette opinion, please consider putting on your walking shoes and joining the 41 percent of Yellowstone County adults who get regular, moderate exercise.