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Bobbie Fellows of Big Timber was stranded in the MetraPark Arena parking lot for 90 minutes after the Women of Faith conference ended just after 5 p.m. May 12.

“I don’t know what the problem was,” said Fellows, one of 10,000 women who attended the religious conference.

“We couldn’t see anybody directing traffic. A good share of the people were still sitting there by the time we left.”

She said, “We were lucky to be able to get into the line that was moving.”

Long lines of cars are nothing new at Metra, which has been holding concerts, trade shows, political rallies and sporting events for a quarter of a century. But state and local officials are working to find ways to avoid repeating two recent occurrences of Metra traffic gridlock.

Thousands of people who saw President George W. Bush at Metra in March were stuck in the parking lot for more than an hour afterward. Bill Chiesa, MetraPark’s general manager, said the Secret Service kept Metra’s parking lots sealed until the presidential motorcade reached the airport, which contributed to the delays.

Chiesa also regrets that so many people were inconvenienced when the Women of Faith conference ended.

Waiting for hours to leave Metra’s parking lot can ruin an otherwise enjoyable event. Not surprisingly, traffic and parking problems usually rank as the biggest complaints when Metra surveys its customers, Chiesa said.

At a recent three-hour meeting, officials from city, state and county agencies began discussing short- and long-term solutions to Metra’s traffic problems. Chiesa said the meeting left him hopeful that the traffic congestion can be resolved through a cooperative effort and improvements to traffic signals along Main Street.

Chiesa said Metra would do everything it can to make sure that future events don’t end during rush hour.

“It started out as an informational meeting. But, as it turned out, we identified some fairly simple things to help improve traffic,” said Bruce Barrett, the Montana Department of Transportation’s district manager for the Billings area.

Timing contributed to traffic problems associated with the presidential visit and the Women of Faith conference. Both events ended during rush hour on Main Street, which is Montana’s busiest commercial street, Barrett said.

He said Main handles about 45,000 cars a day.

“So, when you release several thousand cars from Metra during peak periods, it doesn’t take much to screw up traffic,” he said.

In a search for a short-term solution to improve traffic flow, Metra officials agreed to supply the city of Billings with a list of upcoming events, estimates of the number of vehicles and the approximate end times. Traffic signals on Main Street are owned by the Montana Transportation Department, but the city operates and maintains them.

Barrett and Chiesa agreed that traffic congestion near MetraPark is less of a problem when events end during off-peak hours.

Other long-term solutions are in the works to improve traffic flow on Main Street and around Metra, Barrett said.

Within months, new computerized signal controllers will be installed on traffic lights from First Avenue North to Wicks Lane.

The new equipment, which is expected to cost between $750,000 and $1 million, will enable traffic engineers to program traffic signals off site by using a computer, Barrett said. Under the current system, traffic signals must be adjusted on site, Barrett said.

Traffic on Main Street will continue to grow because of new commercial developments such as Wal-Mart and Target.

“We have to do these kinds of things to keep up,” Barrett said.

“We’ll be able to sit in our office and change the timing on the lights,” said Terry Smith, traffic engineer for the city of Billings.

Smith said improved communications among Metra, the city and the state would help the three agencies plan for big crowds.

“If they tell us we’re expecting 2,000 cars to leave Metra at 9:30 p.m., we’ll be able to sit down and plan for it,” Smith said.

TranSystems Corp., a traffic engineering firm with an office in Billings, also is conducting a study to see if traffic flows can be improved by changing the timing of signals.

Chuck Strum, Billings office manager for TranSystems, said traffic flow is measured using automated traffic counters and observers posted at intersections. The information is transferred to a computer program, and the consultant then develops a plan for moving traffic more efficiently.

“Hopefully, you come up with a plan that allows somebody to drive the length of Main Street without stopping,” Strum said.

Tom Howard can be reached at 657-1261 or at thoward@billingsgazette.com

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