To people who get their exercise by jogging or walking or cycling around the Billings area, it didn’t seem like that big of a request.
As long as the Interstate 90 bridge connecting Billings and Lockwood was being rebuilt anyway, why not add a dedicated path just for pedestrians. There are thousands of highway bridges in the country, and many in Montana, with a wide, protected, shared-use path for non-motorized travel.
But building a locally used path over the bridge, which is run by state agencies, is proving more difficult than many anticipated. After years of negotiations, there will be no shared use path in the $63 million dollar project, and no way to add one on later.
The path would have sent pedestrians safely over the Yellowstone River between popular outdoor destinations like Coulson Park and the Four Dances Recreation Area on BLM land.
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The bridge work is being managed by the Montana Department of Transportation. During an online meeting about the project in February, the missing path seemed like all anyone wanted to talk about.
MDOT blamed the disappearing path on money, and safety concerns.
“There were certainly impacts that were hard to overcome, one of them was cost,” MDOT project manager Dustin Hirose said during the meeting.
“In general, the idea of having bicyclists and pedestrians on an access controlled facility, a high-speed facility like the interstate poses some safety concerns,” he added. “Based on the outcome of that work it was decided to not move forward with bike or pedestrian accommodations on that structure.”
Not so fast, say leaders of local groups that have spent decades advocating for a non-motorized trail system around Yellowstone County. They said the state could add it if locals paid the bill.
Engineers designing the new $63 million bridge originally estimated that adding the dedicated pedestrian path would cost an additional $1.4 million, not including expenses to connect the path. That estimation, however, violated MDOT’s 2016 shared-use policy requiring all costs be included in the shared-use path estimates.
MDOT’s policy states a shared-use path could amount to as much as 10% of a project’s cost.
“I thought that in context, a million would be something they could do,” said TrailNet executive director Kristi Drake. TrailNet is a non-profit that funds local trail projects. The group’s members said they asked the state to look into the option of adding a shared-use path on the side or under the bridge.
“They (MDOT) said it could be added if (TrailNet) paid the bill, and that was pretty disheartening.”
A 2017 report obtained by The Gazette details engineers from MDOT and HDR saying the pedestrian structure would be feasible. Building it also fell in line with MDOT’s 2016 shared-use policy. The City of Billings recommended adding this shared-use path to connect Coulson Park to Four Dances, although the state can ignore the city's recommendation due to MDOT's sole authority on interstate bridges.
Rod Nelson, the Billings district administrator for MDOT, said the state decided against the pedestrian bridge because it did not fit the sole purpose of transportation.
“Since the pedestrian bridge was going to connect two parks and nothing else, the designers did not think it would be a job for the transportation department,” Nelson said.
As Montana’s population grows, and road infrastructure degrades, new projects across the state are creating the next generation of travel options. Bicycling advocates are concerned a pathless I-90 reconstruction will continue a trend of preventing non-motorists from navigating the area.
The project first took form in 2012 after research suggested the current two-lane bridge, built in 1965, should be widened and reconstructed from two lanes to three between the North 27th Street Interchange and the Lockwood Interchange. The project also includes reconstruction of the bridges over the Yellowstone River and the Talen Energy railroad spur line.
Shared-use paths are wide, concrete paths separated from the road that people can walk, bike or roll on. There are shared use paths on I-90 in Washington state, and hundreds of miles worth in Montana.
The 2014, the city's trail master plan listed a shared-use path on the I-90 bridge between Coulson Park and Four Dances. The city’s Coulson Park master plan also prioritized connecting the two parks.
The state responded with a feasibility report detailing some actions the state could take. It said a structure under the bridge would be too close to the river’s floodplain, but additional structures to the side of the path were feasible.
Lisa Gray, a spokesperson for engineering firm HDR, said although it was structurally feasible, there were many implications associated with adding the pedestrian structure. Implications in the 2017 report said pedestrian interstate travel is not typical, that a pathway is needed to get up to the bridge, vibration from the bridge could affect pedestrians, and snow removal could be an issue.
Billings City Administrator Chris Kukulski told The Gazette the transportation department and the city negotiated the bridge design. While the city advocated for the pathway, there is no way to force the state to build it, he said.
“We, as the city, can make recommendations, but there is no guarantee they will follow our guidance,” Kukulski said.
Another section of the trail master plan, a shared use path replacing the narrow pedestrian crossing at the Dick Johnson bridge, does have some momentum.
As a part of the Lockwood Interchange project, we plan on widening the path on the Dick Johnson bridge to connect Lockwood and MetraPark,” MDOT's Nelson said.
There is no timeline to when that shared-use path will be completed.
During the February meeting, Mike Taylor, a MDT consultant project engineer, said the 10 foot unguarded shoulder on the new bridge could be used by pedestrians if necessary.
“There’s no pedestrian restrictions from the interstate,'' Taylor said “They could use the shoulder to walk across the bridge.”