Montana lawmakers have the opportunity to let local voters decide on improvements for pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

House Bill 437 was inspired by a tragic motor vehicle accident in Lockwood that killed a Lockwood teen as he and a friend walked along the snow-covered side of a street with no sidewalks on a January evening.

Lockwood is an unincorporated community of at least 8,000 people. State law presently doesn’t allow rural residents to form improvement districts for walking and biking safety.

At the request of Lockwood residents, Rep. Jonathan McNiven, whose district includes Lockwood, introduced HB437, which would add “county walking and biking improvement projects” to the list of 26 specific purposes state law allows taxes to be levied. However, the bill would require that the county commission hold at least two public hearings before putting a walking and biking district to a vote of the people in the proposed district, and forbids creation of such a district unless approved by voters in either a regular election, a primary election or an all-mail ballot election.

The House backed the bill 66 to 32 on final passage on Feb. 27. Sen. Taylor Brown, whose district includes Lockwood, Rep. Doug Kary of Billings Heights and Rep. David Moore of Missoula signed on as co-sponsors.

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Dan Schwarz, chief civil deputy Yellowstone County attorney, helped draft the bill. He said present law only allows counties to create a countywide improvement district or a district that taxes only property adjacent to the improvement.

In Lockwood, residents and property owners blocks away would benefit from sidewalks near the school and along busy streets. HB437 would give residents of Lockwood or any other unincorporated area the flexibility to create a district that met local needs and apportioned costs across the area that benefited.

Sue Vinton, vice chairwoman of Lockwood school board, summed up the safety argument at a Senate committee hearing Monday, saying: “We need lights. We need trails. We need a place where children can safely walk to and from school.”

Lockwood community members, Yellowstone County officials and local lawmakers have done their homework on this safety issue and have developed a great solution. Enacting HB437 would empower local voters to make their streets safer. The final decision about investing in improvements would be up to voters.

The Senate Local Government Committee is scheduled to vote on HB437 on Wednesday. We ask the members to support this good bill and send it to the full Senate with a recommendation of do pass.

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