There's just one street that carries traffic to and from Skyview High School, Harvest Church and all of the homes in subdivisions on that northwestern edge of Billings Heights. For many years, Heights residents have pleaded for another route — for public safety, improved traffic flow and economic development opportunities.
The solution, called the Inner Belt Loop, has been on the city's to-do list for years. The city's Capital Improvement Plan, approved earlier this year by the City Council, says construction on the Inner Belt Loop will start next year.
But two weeks ago, City Public Works Director Dave Mumford told the council that the Heights loop should be delayed till 2013. As previously reported by The Gazette, the reasons Mumford gave for delay include:
The city doesn't know where it might put a tunnel through the Rimrocks to replace Zimmerman Trail, at a cost roughly estimated at $60 million.
The arterial street fee money the city planned to use on the Inner Belt Loop is needed for other projects in the next two years.
The public works staff is overworked.
The city budget is getting tighter.
Now that the city staff has given an opinion on the Inner Belt Loop, the City Council needs to hear from concerned citizens.
The proposed two-year delay was a hot topic at a recent Heights Task Force meeting. Participants decided to circulate petitions telling the council: “Don't delay the Inner Belt Loop.” Signature gatherers were at MetraPark on Election Day and will be asking neighbors to sign to express their support.
Because the City Council hasn't acted, the Inner Belt Loop hasn't been officially delayed yet. Heights council members Denis Pitman and Angela Cimmino are planning to request that the council affirm support for the project.
The Inner Belt Loop would connect the west end of Wicks Lane to Alkali Creek Road and Highway 3, providing a new route for traffic in and out of the Heights. Presently, in the event of an emergency that blocks Wicks Lane or ties up that route with a traffic jam, there is no way for emergency vehicles to access the Skyview neighborhood. The Inner Belt Loop would provide that access.
The necessity of another route was dramatically illustrated when the Father's Day tornado damage closed Main Street overnight. Bumper-to-bumper traffic detoured from Main Street stopped or crept slowly along Aronson Avenue, a two-lane residential street. Commercial trucks were detoured along Interstate 90 through Huntley.
The Inner Belt Loop is expected to cost about $12 million. City officials went to the 2009 Legislature to ask for a change in Montana law so arterial street fees could be used to pay off bonds for the loop. Sen. Kim Gillan, whose district covers the Heights, sponsored the bill, which became law with bipartisan support.
A west Heights loop has been under discussion for 20 years — since shortly after Skyview High School opened. It's on the City Capital Improvement Plan. It was the impetus for changing state law on revenue bond issues. Let's not stop short now.
We call on Pitman and Cimmino to put the Inner Belt Loop on the council agenda soon and provide opportunity for citizens to tell the rest of the City Council why this project matters to Billings.