A pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks in downtown Billings — which has been on the drawing board for nearly a decade — could be in use by next fall.
The regional committee that decides how transportation money is spent in the Billings area gave final approval to the project Tuesday. That ensures that the project will go forward, said Scott Walker, transportation planner with the city-county Planning Department, and work can begin as soon as the state signs off on it.
“That bridge, with any luck, should be on the ground by this time next year — or in the air, I should say,” Walker said.
The 111-foot-long steel bridge will cross the tracks at 25th Street, stretching from Minnesota Avenue on the south to Montana Avenue on the north.
The project got the green light Tuesday from the Policy Coordinating Committee, made up of representatives of the Billings City Council, the Yellowstone County Commission, the Yellowstone County Planning Board and the Montana Department of Transportation.
The committee voted unanimously to give the project $719,000 in federal funding through the Community Transportation Enhancement Program. The balance of the total cost of $830,000 will come from donations, grants and the last of the funds from a decade-old, voter-approved bond issue to support trail construction in Billings.
Plans for the pedestrian bridge grew out of the Downtown Billings Framework Plan, completed in 1997. Two years later, committees working to implement pieces of that plan developed recommendations for the historic Old Town district on both sides of the tracks.
One recommendation was to build pedestrian bridges over the tracks at 25th and 30th streets. The one at 25th Street was given top priority because there are already bike lanes on South 25th Street, and when the final easements across private property on the South Side are obtained, that trail will connect with the trail that follows the river through Coulson Park and continues to the north end of the Heights.
The bridge to be used in the project is owned by artist and metal sculptor Charles Ringer of Joliet. The steel-truss structure was built in 1901 as a horse-and-buggy bridge over Rock Creek near Joliet. Ringer bought it in 1988 and it has sat on his property since then.
His original intention was to build a house inside the bridge, set the whole thing down on a railroad turntable — used to move locomotives inside a repair roundhouse — and have the entire house slowly swivel with the sun, to maximize its ability to harness solar power.
“After a little calculating, it got pretty expensive fast,” Ringer said Wednesday.
He has had other offers to buy it over the years, Ringer said, but he would rather see it in public use. When the city first offered to buy it, Ringer wanted about $25,000, enough to buy a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
He said he’s not in the market for a Harley anymore, but will probably let the bridge go for about the same price. That’s something that still has to be negotiated with the city.
It will undoubtedly cost more to move the bridge, which is 18 feet wide and 20 feet high. In 2001, Ostermiller House Moving estimated the cost of a move from Joliet to downtown Billings at almost $22,000.
Randy Hafer of High Plains Architects, which drew up a master plan for the bridge in 2001, said early plans to include elevators were scrapped because they cost too much and are susceptible to vandalism.
Instead, the bridge will have staircases and Americans with Disabilities Act-approved ramps running perpendicular to the bridge, affording access to bicycles, wheelchairs and strollers.
On the south side of the bridge, the city’s Parking Advisory Board has plans to build a parking lot that would include spaces for oversize vehicles like RVs.
Walker said the project has been approved by Montana Rail Link, though the details of meshing construction with railroad operations still have to be worked out.
Hafer said it will help that virtually all the components of the bridge — the steel pylons, the stairs and the ramps — will be built off-site and then quickly installed. Setting the bridge down on the pylons will be fastest of all, maybe the work of just three hours, Hafer said.
“It’s going to just happen,” he said. “It’s going to be a real dramatic thing.”