Guest opinion: Hoping for safe travels near new school


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Ben Steele Middle School will be built near the intersection of Grand Avenue and 56th Street West.

Residents along Grand Avenue, Central Avenue and 56th Street West have taken notice of the many surveying activities along the roads and in the space that will soon be Ben Steele Middle School.

We are excited about the new school and look forward to the convenience that having a school out this way brings to the families in the neighborhood. Construction on the new school is slated to begin in February and should be completed in time for the 2017-2018 school year. As impacted residents, we have a timely, but limited, opportunity to offer input and feedback to the traffic plans in and around the new school.

Essentially, our main concern is this: pedestrians and bicyclists on Grand and Central avenues and the north-south streets intersecting Grand and Central are currently not safe. The same is true for Rimrock Road west of Shiloh. There are no shoulders on any of the roads, no crosswalks, and traffic moves at upwards of 60 mph, even though the posted speed limits may be lower.

With so many children within walking and biking distance to the new school, thinking about school children negotiating these roads on a daily basis is very troubling.

To obtain answers to these concerns, my husband, Steve Simonson, a resident of the Foxtail Village subdivision at 58th and Grand, requested a meeting with the planners for the school. His request was met enthusiastically and the meeting was held in June.

Those in attendance included Terry Bouck, School District 2 superintendent; Lew Anderson, SD2 facilities coordinator; Eric Simonsen and Paul Goldammer of A&E Architects; City Councilmember Jani McCall; Public Works Director Dave Mumford; D.J. Clark and Pat Davies of Sanderson Stewart; along with Steve Simonson and Janet Stearns on behalf of the Foxtail Homeowners Association.

Those involved in the planning phase were pleased that residents are taking the initiative to ask questions and offer feedback regarding the plans for traffic flow around the school.

The following improvements are in the proposed plan based on the recent traffic studies:

♦ Grand Avenue will be widened to three lanes between 48th and 54th streets, which will accommodate a turning lane to drop off school children within the parent drop-off parking area, which will be accessed from Grand Avenue.

♦ A single-lane roundabout will be added at the intersection of 54th and Grand.

♦ Sidewalks will be finished on 54th.

♦ A 10-foot paved trail will be constructed on the north side of Grand from 54th to 56th adjacent to the existing properties.

♦ “Hawk” crossings, which are pedestrian activated, will be installed at or near the intersection of 58th and Grand.

Goldammer noted that “these are only proposals at this point. The city of Billings still has yet to finalize design and funding for most of these improvements.”

The proposed improvements are a good start. However, there are issues that still to be addressed:

♦ A middle turning lane the entire length of Grand and Central avenues from Shiloh Road to 64th.

♦ Widened shoulders to accommodate bicyclists.

♦ Marked crosswalks at every intersection along Grand and Central.

♦ The open irrigation canal on 56th along what would be Broadwater Avenue.

The largest impediment to these improvements is the hodgepodge of city annexations vs. county property along the avenues. An example of this jumbled jurisdiction is 58th Street West from Rimrock to Grand: one-half mile of it is unpaved county road and the other half mile is paved city street. It makes no sense and hampers efficient traffic flow into and out of subdivisions (Yellowstone Country Club, Copper Ridge and Ironwood) north of Rimrock.

At this point, there are no plans to improve anything along 64th Street West, which is also used by Copper Ridge and Ironwood residents to access Grand Avenue.
Granted, these impediments are not simply due to the new school. They have more to do with a quickly expanding community and traffic plans that have not kept up.

Locating a school in this part of Billings will only drive residential growth in this area, so a master plan that anticipates traffic needs is key to keeping the neighborhood safe and efficient for all.

Our call to action as residents is this—let’s all be advocates for proactive traffic improvements in our neighborhoods. The traffic flow on Rimrock Road near St. John’s and Arrowhead Elementary is so much better now than it was just two years ago, but it took 50 years to get those improvements right.

The speed of change will not wait 50 years for improvements west of Shiloh on Rimrock, Grand and Central, so let’s get it right the first time.

If you have interest in collaborating as homeowners associations or as neighbors to serve on a committee that lobbies our city and county planners, please contact Steve and Rachel Simonson at 255-6348. Together, we can achieve great things for our community and our neighborhoods.

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