Billings has applied for a $26 million federal grant to help finish construction of a major secondary access road between the Heights and the West End, and a trail system that will complete a 26-mile loop around the city.
Mayor Bill Cole, along with city staff and leaders from the Billings Chamber of Commerce and Big Sky Economic Development traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to meet with representatives of the U.S. Dept. of Transportation and Montana's two senators and lone representative to make their case.
"This (project) would be a complete game-changer" for the city, Cole said at Monday night's city council meeting.
The inner belt loop is a city project that would connect the Heights to Billings' West End, bringing Wicks Lane overland to the Zimmerman Trail-Highway 3 intersection. The goal of the project is to help boost commercial and residential development in the Heights and reduce traffic along Main Street, particularly where it bottlenecks at MetraPark and Airport Road.
That stretch of Main Street famously became a public safety hazard in June 2010 when a tornado touched down near the Metra and first responders had trouble accessing the area because of blocked traffic.
The Marathon Loop Trail runs along Airport Road, down to the Yellowstone River, passing through Mystic and Riverfront parks, connecting with Shiloh Road near ZooMontana, where it runs up to connect back at Airport Road.
Roughly two-thirds of the trail has been constructed. Large stretches along the Yellowstone River and Airport Road still need to be completed.
The grant for which the city is competing has a 10% approval rate. Much of what makes Billings competitive is that its plan includes projects for trails and roads, that it would boost economic development and that public safety is a major component.
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"Our project has many (different) elements, which is really important," said city planner, Wyeth Friday.
The U.S. Dept. of Transportation awards half of the grants to rural communities, and Billings is considered part of that group. However, Missoula has submitted an application, as has the Montana Dept. of Transportation for the Billings bypass project.
Still, Billings leaders are cautiously optimistic.
"Our project has a lot going for it," Cole said. "It checks a lot of their boxes."
Friday, who was part of the team that traveled to D.C. was pleased by the reception they received from Sen. Jon Tester and Sen. Steve Daines, and from Rep. Greg Gianforte.
"All of them were very supportive," Friday said.
The city could learn as early as Nov. 12 if it's been awarded the grant.