Grand opening for new Zimmerman Trail pedestrian underpass

Cyclists line up to ride the trail during the July groundbreaking ceremony for a new section of the Skyline Trail — a multi-use path that will eventually extend atop the Rims from Zimmerman Park to Swords Park.

Last July, the city of Billings applied for a grant of $25 million for trails and a new road from the U.S. Department of Transportation 2019 BUILD funds.

The grant would have helped build significant trails that will connect our community in meaningful ways. The Marathon Loop, when it’s completed, will connect the Heights to the rest of Billings, the Rims to the valley, and the southeast end of Billings from east to west. The Marathon Loop is about 60% complete, with sections of trails around Billings’ perimeter, but key pieces are missing.

The BUILD grant would complete the loop, with a new trail adjacent to Zimmerman Trail, the Skyline Trail connecting Zimmerman Park to Swords Park, a connection between Riverfront Park and the Shiloh Trail at ZooMontana; and a trail from the Heights to Highway 3.

Sadly, Billings was notified on Monday that the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded just one community in Montana this year: Missoula. Congratulations to this highly bikeable city for its outstanding efforts in advocating for biking and walking infrastructure. I’m looking forward to experiencing the results when their BUILD project is completed.

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And now, back to Billings … This community needs connection in our trail system, and we do not have the funding, or a mechanism to get funds, to accomplish building these trails.

People need to get safely by bike or on foot from the Heights to the downtown area. We desperately need safe, nonmotorized travel from the Rims to the valley, and we need to connect our neighborhoods for everyone in the community to enjoy our trail system, connect to the beautiful Rims and the Yellowstone River. If we don’t get giant grants like these, how will we fund these three different trail segments that could be approximately $10 million to build?

I want to express my gratitude to our federal delegation, Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, for their unanimous support of our BUILD Grant application. Thanks as well to my teammates who joined me on the journey to Washington on Oct. 18: Steve Arveschoug, executive director of Big Sky Economic Development; Dan Brooks, business advocacy manager at the Billings Chamber of Commerce; Mayor Bill Cole and Wyeth Friday, director of planning and community services saw the significance of this project and championed it with me in Washington, D.C.

I hope that next year, if there is a BUILD grant again, and if the city of Billings applies for the same project, that the DOT finds the Billings Marathon Loop and Inner Belt Loop to have a significant local and regional impact to warrant an award. In the meantime, our community must continue seeking funding mechanisms and building support for our trail system.

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Kristi Drake is executive Director of Billings TrailNet, a nonprofit organization advocating for local trails and partnerships to build and maintain trails. Contact her at kristi@billingstrailnet.org or 406-281-1244.


Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.