Panel OKs Bench road funds

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

In light of Heights traffic snarls stemming from the Father’s Day tornado, the U.S. Senate is considering $1million in road improvements to Bench Boulevard.

Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $1 million for turning Bench Boulevard into an emergency traffic route out of the Heights. The committee also set aside $500,000 to improve the outdated emergency radio system used by Billings and Yellowstone County police and firefighters.

In the aftermath of the June 20 tornado, Main Street became clogged with emergency vehicles, spectators and Heights residents trying to get home.

Some 35,000 people live in the Heights, said Dave Mumford, Billings Public Works director. Diverting those residents in case of an emergency has been a concern for some time.

“This will make a big difference for people on the east side of Main,” Mumford said.

City, county and state officials were already in the process of developing Bench Boulevard as an alternate route to take pressure off Main, Mumford said. The city planned to break ground no later than January on a project that would extend south Bench over Alkali Creek and eventually to Sixth Avenue North.

The $1 million being considered by the Senate would help the State Transportation Department punch north Bench Boulevard through to Highway 312.

Mumford said city and county officials approached Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus about help with the bench project after the tornado.

Tester is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee that endorsed the funding Thursday. The funding, which is folded into a larger housing and transportation bill, still needs approval of the full Senate and the House of Representatives.

“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,” said Billings Mayor Tom Hanel in a written statement.

Tester and Baucus called the funding a smart use of federal dollars on public safety.

Mumford said Bench will need extensive work before it’s ready for overflow traffic. A holdover from the Heights’ rural roots, the boulevard is currently a two-lane, shoulderless road with minimal lighting. In places it is flanked by horse pasture as well as condominiums and affordable housing.