A long-dormant proposal to develop a bicycle and pedestrian trail on a railroad corridor through downtown Billings will be the subject of a study later this year.
The study, which will be commissioned by the Department of Planning and Community Services, will look at the possibility of making use of what is known as the Fifth Avenue North Corridor, stretching all the way from the YMCA at 402 N. 32nd St. to the entrance to MetraPark.
Scott Walker, a transportation planner with the planning department, said the search for a consultant to do the study will probably begin in January or February, with most of the work done this spring and summer. A citizen advisory committee will assist the consultant and the study should be done sometime next fall, Walker said.
The concept has been floating around for decades. It was mentioned in the Downtown Billings Framework Plan, which was completed in 1997 and did much to spur redevelopment in the central business district and on Montana Avenue.
“It is important now,” the framework said of the corridor, “so that it can be developed as an open space link in the future.”
That same year, the concept was mentioned again in a renovation plan developed for the old Billings Parmly Library. That plan included a drawing of a green space running alongside the library in the Fifth Avenue North Corridor.
“It was more of an idea and some renderings than a full-blown study,” said Don Olsen, an architect who worked on the library plan. But it was obvious back then that something should be done with the corridor.
“It’s an amenity a lot of cities would give anything to have,” he said.
Walker agreed, saying redeveloping the corridor, and preserving it as open space, “would be a big one for Billings.”
Walker said the idea is finally about to be subjected to a serious examination because of development alongside the corridor and because of renewed interest in the corridor generated by creation of the East Billings Urban Renewal District in 2006.
Long-term plans for the district—bordered roughly by North 22nd Street, MetraPark, Sixth Avenue North and Montana Avenue—include hotels, restaurants and “workforce housing.”
Developing the Fifth Avenue North Corridor as a trail and linear park presumably would make those EBURD development plans more attractive, as well as providing a link from the west end of the downtown to MetraPark, a goal mentioned in several earlier studies, including the downtown framework.
“The whole idea is to look at the options for moving bikes and pedestrians along that corridor … so we can start making the connectivity from east downtown Billings to west downtown Billings and down to the historic district of Montana Avenue,” Walker said.
Montana Avenue comes into play because a spur rail line branches south to Montana off the Fifth Avenue corridor at North 22nd Street. The study will look at development of that rail corridor as well.
A major part of the upcoming study will be determining who owns right-of-way along the railroad and who is willing to allow public use of some of the space. The city itself owns a lot of land in the corridor, Walker said, but there are many property owners. At this point, he said, he doesn’t know how much right-of-way is owned by Montana Rail Link or Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, or a combination of the two.
“Some property owners will want this to happen tomorrow,” Walker said. “Some property owners will not want this ever. We’ll talk to every property owner, as we always do. If they don’t want us there, we’ll figure out a way around.”
East of North 25th Street, the corridor still has a rail line that is used by various businesses. West of there, the tracks have been removed. From the YMCA east, the corridor runs between two of the Transwestern buildings, then between First Interstate bank and a parking garage, then through parking lots owned by Gainan’s, School District 2, the library, the Billings Gazette and the Yellowstone Art Museum.
Walker said the study could look at other options that have been proposed for the corridor, including having a trolley running between the west end of downtown and MetraPark, and making sure the public space is wide enough to host special events. There has also been talk of installing public art along the corridor trail.
As the city continues to grow, Walker said, preserving a ribbon of green space in the city center “could be something really important for Billings.”
That is also important for the Downtown Billings Association. Lisa Harmon, executive director of the DBA, said one of the association’s committees has been looking at creating “pocket parks” in the downtown, including some in the Fifth Avenue corridor.
Developing a green space along that corridor would involve numerous entities, including the city, the EBURD, the city, the chamber of commerce, Big Sky Economic Development and the DBA.
“It makes sense for all of us,” Harmon said. “It really does. I’m very excited that the city is putting this to the forefront.”