Improving Heights traffic flow, safety

Billings Gazette

by Editorial

Last month, Billings got a look at what happens to traffic when Montana’s busiest street is shut down. The Father’s Day storm forced closure of Main Street for part of a day. Getting around the Heights was tough; getting through Billings required a nearly 30-mile detour through Huntley.

As noted in this column on June 23, a partial solution to the traffic bottleneck has been on the drawing board for a decade. Suddenly, the Bench Boulevard Connecter generated renewed interest. Within days, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester was surveying the storm damage and talking with Yellowstone County commissioners about helping to move the Bench Boulevard project forward.

Last week, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved $1 million for Bench Boulevard as well as $500,000 for upgrading the city’s emergency radio communications system. Tester, a member of the committee, said: “These are two very worthwhile public projects that will make Billings safer.”

Sen. Max Baucus also supports funding the two Billings appropriations. However, the funding is part of a large housing and transportation bill that still needs to pass the full Senate, the U.S. House and get the president’s signature before the money would actually flow this way.

Even without this appropriation, some work on Bench Boulevard is scheduled to start this fall with the construction of a bridge across Alkali Creek. The Yellowstone County Commission has allocated funds to cover the estimated $1 million in bridge costs.

The next steps will be connecting the bridge to Bench Boulevard on the north and to Sixth Avenue on the south through MetraPark, then upgrading Bench between Lake Elmo Road and Hilltop Road, a project that is on the tentative 2011 schedule for the Montana Department of Transportation. The money authorized by the Senate Appropriations Committee would be used to upgrade Bench Boulevard from Hilltop Road to Highway 312.

As Mayor Tom Hanel said: “The recent tornado and horrific storm that crippled the flow of traffic in and out of the Billings Heights is a stark reminder of how important this project is for the safety of all persons affected.”

It’s going to take a lot of work by city, county and state authorities to get Bench Boulevard completed. Federal funding would make it happen sooner rather than later.