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Taming the traffic
BOB ZELLAR/Gazette Staff Some vehicles get the green light to head out as the lanes of traffic spread out across Main Street in Billings Heights, the busiest street in Montana. BOB ZELLAR/Gazette Staff Reducing traffic congestion on Main Street may help attract customers from elsewhere in Billings to the Heights says Christie Lausch, who owns In-Style Tile & More.

Talk to anybody who works or lives on the Heights, and, sooner or later, the topic of traffic comes up.

Considering that Main Street, the only arterial on the Heights, carries more traffic each day than any other street in Montana, there's a lot to talk about.

Bruce Barrett, Billings District Administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation, said the average daily traffic count on some sections of Main Street is 48,000 vehicles per day.

Rachel Corcoran and Nora Davis say they watch daily from the window of City Brew, 405 Main St., as vehicles race through their parking lot to avoid the stop light on Lake Elmo Drive and Main Street. Last week when an accident occurred at the intersection, Corcoran said two semitrailer trucks drove through the lot to get around the intersection and back onto Main Street.

"I don't think semis are supposed to fit on that street," Corcoran said, pointing to a narrow street that links the strip mall where City Brew sits to other businesses along Main.

Davis, who moved to Billings from Southern California, said she worries about the children who ride their bicycles and skateboards in the area because of speeding vehicles. She said people shouldn't worry so much about waiting a few minutes at a red light.

"Traffic, what traffic?" Davis asked. "I don't see traffic in Billings whatsoever — not compared to where I'm from."

The problems with the intersection in front of City Brew will be alleviated in 2006 when the Bench Connection, which reconnects Bench Boulevard to Sixth Avenue North, is built. The streets once formed old Highway 10, but the route was abandoned after the rerouting of Alkali Creek and the construction of Main Street.

The Bench Connection project is one of several scheduled to take place in the next five to 10 years to help reduce the amount of traffic on Main Street.

Yellowstone County Commissioner Jim Reno views the street projects as a necessary safety measure.

"Now, if you have an accident on Main Street, you've sealed off the fifth- or sixth-largest city in Montana," Reno said.

Businesses are drawn to Main Street because so many vehicles travel it every day. But some business owners say the congestion on Main Street also can keep customers from other parts of town from coming to the Heights.

Christie Lausch, owner of In-Style Tile & More, 643 Main St., said she never deals with traffic because she commutes to the Heights every day from her home on the West End. When the flow of traffic is heading out of the Heights she's entering it.

It's not always that way for her customers, though.

"We pull a lot of business from the West End, and reducing traffic would probably help get those people here," said Lausch, who opened her Heights business six years ago.

At Heights Pet Center, 895 Main St., employee Greg Simpson said customers come from all over Montana and Wyoming to buy pets at the Heights store because it has one of the best selections of saltwater fish.

He said he's excited about the project to extend Aronson Avenue to connect with Alkali Creek Road and, ultimately, Airport Road because it will make his exit from the Heights simpler.

"I live on Governors, and that will really make it nice to get into town," Simpson said.

In the meantime, the synchronization project for the stop lights on Main Street is almost complete, making it easier to move traffic along Main Street. The city of Billings is also putting a street bond measure before voters this fall to provide $750,000 to improve Alkali Creek Road.

City engineer Vern Heisler said the project would begin in 2004 and would provide sidewalks, curbs and gutters for the street.

Jaci Webb may be reached at 657-1359 or at jwebb@billings-gazette.com.

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