Trails were the top choice among Billings residents surveyed about the community’s recreational needs. People of all ages use bike/pedestrian trails for cycling, walking and running.
Trails in city parks, such as the popular Swords Park trail atop the Rims, are maintained by the Parks, Recreation and Public Lands Department, which has a very limited budget to keep up the parks.
Trails along city streets and highways are maintained by the Public Works Department, which has no ongoing source of revenue for trail construction. Since federal funding dedicated to alternate modes of transportation went away, Billings trail construction has nearly stopped.
In an effort to meet public demand for trails, Billings TrailNet and the Public Works Department came up with an idea for a modest funding stream that could keep Billings moving forward. At an October presentation to the Billings City Council, Public Works Director Dave Mumford was directed to return with more information and a detailed plan. That’s still in the works, Mumford told The Gazette last week. He hopes that trail funding will be up for council discussion again early in 2019.
The idea under development is a $2 per month assessment on city utility bills that allows customers to opt out if they don’t want to pay it. The concept is similar to the optional assessment for state parks that is on annual Montana state vehicle registration bills. About 80 percent of vehicle owners pay that voluntary park fee, providing the largest source of funding for Montana State Parks.
Trail advocates hope the majority of Billings residents would agree to pay $2 per month to build and maintain trails along city streets.
TrailNet, which has raised and donated private funds for trails in the city, has many allies in this quest for sustained funding. The Billings Chamber of Commerce, local real estate professionals, neighborhood task forces and leading local health care organizations wrote to the City Council in support of trail funding.
Young professionals who can choose to live anywhere want trails. Proximity to trails and green belts is a big draw for homebuyers and enhances property values. As Billings roads get busier, trails offer safer alternatives for non-motorized travel. Trails encourage people to engage in healthy physical activity. Let’s face it, Billings. Too many of us are overweight and sedentary. Trails can be part of a prescription for better health.
At the October council meeting, it was suggested that the fee should sunset in 10 years and estimated that it could raise nearly $1 million per year – minus the money not paid by those who opt out.
Completing the Marathon Loop to encircle Billings with trails would cost an estimated $11 million, but could be built in sections. For example, the 3-mile, Skyline Trail portion between Zimmerman Trail and the west end of the Swords Park Trail would follow Highway 3 and cost about $3.5 million.
TrailNet has already contracted with Sanderson Stewart to engineer the Skyline Trail, said Kristi Drake, TrailNet executive director. She hopes to complete a small stretch of the Skyline Trail next year — thanks to private fundraising and a donation of millings from Riverside Construction, which just completed the roundabout at the top of Zimmerman Trail. Millings from the Zimmerman project can be used to extend the bike trail from Zimmerman Trail east, possibly as far as Zimmerman Place, Drake said.
The Zimmerman Trail road project completed last month included a bike/pedestrian underpass because it was cost efficient to build it when the roundabout was constructed. However, the underpass doesn’t connect to the trail system yet, because there isn’t money for it.
Billings needs an ongoing revenue stream if this great and growing city is going to have the trails residents want for fun, health, safety and recruitment.
We encourage the City Council and Administrator Chris Kukulski to support trails. Let’s try tapping public support to help pay for this quality of life amenity. And let’s be careful not to burden our neighbors who want to opt out.