In a three to one vote, the Policy Coordinating Committee (PCC) for Yellowstone County and the City of Billings, approved submitting, for a fourth time, an application for federal funding to build an overpass at the intersection of Bench Boulevard and Sixth Avenue North. The PCC met for the first time this year on Tuesday in the conference room of the County Commissioners.
Councilman, Ed Ulledalen, representing the City of Billings on the PCC, was the lone dissenting vote in applying for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant, after he told PCC members that the city had not taken a position on the matter.
But, a week ago, the Billings City Council did vote (7-4) not to write a letter of support for Yellowstone County's grant application, after also deciding not to submit an application of their own to build the Inner Belt Loop – a route that would connect the Heights to the westend of Billings.
The county's application will be the fourth attempt to get $11.6 million in federal funds, as well as $2.9 million in matching funds from the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT), to design and build a grade-separated route which would ease congestion at the intersection of Main Street and Sixth Avenue North near MetraPark.
With assurances that the MDT is still committed to providing the matching funds, Yellowstone County Commissioners said that they saw the continued pursuit of the grant and the effort to build some kind of grade separation at the intersection of Main Street and Sixth Avenue, as the fulfillment of a commitment to Heights residents to complete the Bench project. The widening of Bench Boulevard and the Bench Connector is a joint project of the city, county and state, which is being done in phases. That phase of the project which connects Bench Boulevard and Sixth Avenue, with a bridge across Alkali Creek, has been completed.
County Commissioner Bill Kennedy asked for the city's support in the application saying that it was a commitment to the residents along Bench Boulevard to "repair" their street and to address the needs of one of the state's busiest intersections which "is going to get busier and busier." He noted that the project is on the PCC's priority list and is a priority with MDT. He added, "Now is the opportunity for us to stay in front of it."
Ulledalen said, "I'll vote no because we would like to revisit the planning process and find out why it was rejected three times."
But with a short deadline fast approaching there is no time to revisit the planning process and little time to even revise the application.
Under questioning from Ulledalen, MDT regional manager, Stefan Streeter, said that the plan had been changed from building a route that would pass over Sixth Avenue and Bench, to one that would pass over Main Street and Exposition Drive, because it would be less costly. He said that preliminary analysis indicated that it would work, but there is no design work done. Another proposed idea of building a roundabout at the intersection appears to have problems, said Streeter, but there is no design work done for it either.
Streeter said the only other option is to do nothing.
There has been no information regarding why the past three applications were unsuccessful, it was reported. Commissioner John Ostlund suggested that it was probably simply because there were so many applications for the grant funds. He added that they had received a lot of calls from contractors throughout the state anxious to see the project funded for the jobs that it would create.
City Councilman Denis Pitman spoke before the PCC in support of the grant. He said that there had been no discussion of the matter among the city council. The city council refused to add it to their agenda at their last meeting.
Marty Connell, a property owner in the east Billings area, said that property owners in the area are supportive of the project wanting "the best deal for the lowest price that fits the area. We will support whatever you do because we do need the same thing."
There were previously some complaints from property owners and business owners in the area because they had had no opportunity to give input on the plans or even to find out what the plans were. A special meeting was held for the property owners, after the last application was submitted, with the explanation that there was little opportunity for public comment because the TIGER grants seem to consistently give little advance notice to submittal deadlines.
In other business before the PCC, Commissioner John Ostlund was re-elected as chairman, after Ed Uledallen declined the position, saying that the city council would likely appoint a different representative in the near future.
The PCC also approved CTEP (Community Transportation Enhancement Program) projects for 2012, which included a bike trail called, The Aronson connection, on the west side of Swords Park ($205,498 plus $31,852 local match); a half mile bike trail connecting Will James Middle School to a trail on the north side of Broadwater Avenue ($112,554 plus $17,446 local match); Hillner Lane sidewalk and Highway 87 crossing in Lockwood for school students ($109,957, plus $17,043 local match); and a $88,017 education project for bicyclists and pedestrians, proposed by Riverstone Health.
The PCC also approved a priority list of transportation projects as presented by Scott Walker of the Planning Department. The list is topped by an $800,000 bridge across the railroad tracks in downtown Billings for bikers and pedestrians, and a repaving project on Laurel Road and Montana Avenue through downtown Billings.
The PCC is comprised of a representative of the City Council, the chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, the regional manager for MDT and the chairman of the Planning Board. The PCC is required by the federal government to exist and to ultimately approve transportation projects and follow federal guidelines, as a condition of getting federal transportation funding.
The Big Sky Business Journal
P.O. Box 3262
Billings, MT 59103