The long-awaited bicycle and pedestrian tunnel under Main Street in the Heights officially opened Wednesday morning with about a dozen cyclists pedaling through a ceremonial blue ribbon held across the underpass.
Mayor Tom Hanel officiated the dedication on the east side of the tunnel in Earl Guss Park, calling it "a very special historic event" made possible by many groups working together.
The tunnel, once called "the underpass to nowhere," is an important link in the city's growing trail system for cyclists and pedestrians, Hanel said.
Bicyclists also welcomed the recent addition of 6.5 miles of bike lanes on major routes throughout the city.
The Main Street tunnel connects a trail system on the east side of Main Street to trails being developed on the west side of Main, including Alkali Creek Trail, Aronson Trail and trails through Swords Park.
Despite the chill and occasional snowflakes, almost 50 people including local officials, representatives from Montana's congressional delegation, the Blue Blazers, trail enthusiasts and Heights residents attended the dedication.
"I consider this my backyard," said Bruce W. Larsen, a graphic artist who works at his home on Bench Boulevard. Larsen, who has been voluntarily cleaning up the area for years, is a regular bike rider and was one of the first to give the underpass a try.
The Main Street tunnel provides a safe route for nonmotorists under seven lanes of high-volume traffic.
Access to the tunnel is east off Main Street at the intersection with Airport Road. Parking is available in the MetraPark lot, along the MetraPark access road or in the dirt lot near Earl Guss Park. Access on the west side of Main Street is next to Blanco Blanco, 320 Main St.
The 200-foot tunnel runs through a steel culvert 14 feet in diameter. The concrete trail through the tunnel is 10 feet wide. The tunnel also has ceiling lights and lights on both sides. NorthWestern Energy will be lighting the fixtures within the month, Hanel said.
The new tunnel runs parallel to an existing culvert that carries Alkali Creek under Main Street and is designed to provide backup drainage during floods.
Daryl Recanati, a cyclist who lives in the West End and works at the post office in the Heights, said he will use the tunnel when he pedals to work. The tunnel will be faster than waiting for street lights, he said.
Heights resident Pam Pipal said she came to the dedication to check out a new walking route for her and her dog.
Yellowstone County Commissioner Jim Reno said guests at nearby Heights motels will be able to walk to MetraPark events. In anticipation of more cyclists using MetraPark, the county is adding more bike racks in the rebuilding of the tornado-damaged Rimrock Auto Arena, he said.
Billings City Councilman Denis Pitman, who represents the Heights, said the new tunnel helps break down some of the physical barriers between the east and west sides of the Heights and the rest of Billings. It also helps unite the community, he said. "When we do that, it's exciting."
The tunnel was funded by a variety of sources, including $1 million in federal stimulus money and $1 million in state and federal transportation funds. Another $154,000 included $42,000 from the Recreational Trails Program through the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, $10,000 from St. Vincent Healthcare, $60,000 in general obligation bonds approved in 1999 by taxpayers, $10,000 from the Sample Foundation, and $32,000 from BikeNet, a local bike advocacy group.
Hanel also recognized the city's Public Works Department, which oversaw the project, the engineering firm of Dowl HKM, Four Beers Construction, which was responsible for boring the tunnel and placing the culvert, and CMG Construction, which built the trail.
Darlene Tussing, an avid bike rider and trails coordinator for the city-county Planning Department, said the 6.5 miles of new lanes are in addition to about five miles of existing lanes.
"I think the motorists know where to go," she said. The bike lanes also have a "calming effect" on traffic by slowing it down while providing a corridor for cyclists, she said.
Erin Claunch, a staff engineer in the city's Public Works Department, said bike lanes were added last month to five streets. A lane is pending for a sixth street.
The completed bike lanes and signs are on Briarwood Boulevard from Blue Creek Road to Cardiff Road; Poly Drive from 13th Street West to North 32nd Street; Sixth Avenue South from South 27th Street to South 34th Street; South 28th Street from Second Avenue South to 11th Avenue South; and North 30th Street from Sixth Avenue North to Grandview Boulevard.
The city is waiting for a storm drain construction project to be finished before adding a bike lane to Nutter Boulevard from Tam O'Shanter Road to Hilltop Road. If the weather is good, the bike lane could be added in a few weeks, Claunch said. Otherwise, that bike lane will be added in the spring.
When deciding where to add bike lanes, the city considered streets that were wide enough to accommodate vehicles, bicycles and parking, Claunch said.
A few parking spots got eliminated by the lanes, but for the most part, there was minimal loss of parking, he said. The city also wanted streets that get a lot of bicyclists and wanted to spread the bike lanes around the community.
The city then looked at its funding and figured out how many lanes it could add, Claunch said.
The project cost about $179,000, including Nutter Boulevard, which was about $5,000 more than estimated. The funding came from a federal community transportation enhancement program with a 13 percent local match.
Reaction to the bike lanes has been mostly positive, Claunch said. "We've gotten a lot of e-mails from people saying, ‘thanks for the project,' " he said.
Drivers have said they like knowing where to expect cyclists, Claunch said.
The biggest complaints have been about the location of the bike lane signs, he said. Some property owners thought the signs were being installed on their property, but the signs are in the public rights of way, he said.
Billings architect Ed Gulick, who doesn't own a car and bicycles everywhere, uses the North 30th Street lane daily.
"It makes a world of difference," he said. "I have a place."
As lanes and trails get connected, their use will grow, Gulick said.