Editor’s note: Rep. Barry Usher called back after this story was posted. We have included his comments at the end of the story.
Bicyclists from around the state are rallying against a proposed bill that would ban bicyclists and pedestrians from using virtually every two-lane road in the state that doesn’t have a paved shoulder.
Kristi Drake, director of Billings TrailNet, said her first thought was not to worry about the proposal because it seemed to have so little chance of passing.
After giving it more thought, however, she concluded, “Stranger things have happened with our Legislature. We’d better pay attention to it.”
The bill draft was requested by Republican Rep. Barry Usher, who lives outside Laurel and represents House District 40, which takes in Roundup and parts of rural Billings. He is also the owner of Beartooth Harley-Davidson at 6900 S. Frontage Road.
Melinda Barnes, director of Bike Walk Montana, a nonprofit advocacy group with members statewide, said she came across the bill draft Sunday night, when she was looking at transportation-related legislation being considered by the 2017 Legislature.
Barnes, who lives in Helena, arranged to meet with Usher on Tuesday in the Capitol to talk about the bill.
“I gave him all these different reasons why it didn’t make sense,” she said, but Usher was adamant that the bill is needed.
“He said he’s all about safety, and this is where he’s coming from—trying to make the roads safer,” she said.
Attempts to reach Usher were unsuccessful, but under his proposed bill, “A bicyclist may not ride on a two-lane highway outside the boundaries of a municipality when there is no paved shoulder on which to ride.” The same prohibition would apply to pedestrians and people in wheelchairs.
State law defines “highway” as “the entire width between the boundary lines of every publicly maintained way” that is “open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel.” The term “roadway” also appears in the draft. It refers to the traveled-on portion of a highway, exclusive of the berm or shoulder.
It appears, then, that the bill would ban bicyclists from most two-lane roads in the state. It is not clear whether any dirt and gravel roads are classified as “two-lane highways.”
Michelle Erb, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Montana Department of Transportation, said that in its current form, the bill draft makes it difficult to say how many miles of state roads would be affected by the ban.
“We will be watching the bill closely for when it is assigned a bill type and number to see if more clarification is provided,” she said
Erb also said that Usher did not talk to her about his proposed bill, but she didn’t know whether he had been in contact with anyone else in the department.
Barnes said the bill would have a big impact on Montanans who ride bicycles, as well as on tourists. She said bicycle tourism across the state had an economic impact of $377 million in 2014, as estimated by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana.
Routes used by the Adventure Cycling Association and the Bike and Build organization, as well as those used by all the major bicycling events in Montana, are for the most part on narrow two-lane roads, most of them without paved shoulders, Barnes said.
“Bicycle tourism is huge, in Billings and in Montana,” Drake, with Billings TrailNet, said. As for the safety issues, she added, “I didn’t realize it was a problem until Mr. Usher said something about it.”
Darlene Tussing, who used to be the trails coordinator for the city-county Planning Department in Billings and is a member of the Bike Walk Montana board, said she wrote to Usher on Wednesday to point out other road hazards, including farm equipment, cows being moved to different pastures and even groups of motorcyclists.
Tussing and her husband, Ron Tussing, former Billings mayor and chief of police, now live near Alder, far enough from any town that she couldn’t leave her property on her bicycle without violating the provisions of Usher’s proposed bill.
If and when the bill is formally introduced, Tussing said, “I think people will come out of the woodwork” in opposition.
Kathy Aragon, of Billings, also a board member for Bike Walk Montana and a longtime advocate of encouraging children to walk and bike to school, said she was shocked when she learned that Usher owned Beartooth Harley-Davidson.
“I’ve always thought that motorcyclists and bicyclists share the same safety issues,” she said. Usher’s proposal, she added, “seems very ridiculous when you start thinking about it.”
Barnes said Bike Walk Montana supports two other bills that have been introduced this session, both aimed at making it safer to bicycle in Montana.
HB 225, introduced by Ed Greef, R-Florence, calls for creation of a $2 opt-out fee on vehicle registrations, with 80 percent of the money raised going to bike-pedestrian trail maintenance and 20 percent to bicycle and pedestrian education.
HB 267, sponsored by Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, would require motorists passing a bicycle on a public road to stay at least three feet away from the bicycle if the motorist is driving 35 mph or slower, or at least five feet at speeds above 35 mph.
In the 2015 legislative session, Barnes said, state law was amended to no longer require bicyclists to stay as far to the right of the roadway as possible. It now says bicyclists can travel in the driving lane, and that motorists can go over a double-yellow line in order to pass a bicyclist.
Barnes said Bike Walk Montana would like to see a change in a state law that requires bicyclists to ride single-file. She said bicyclists riding two-abreast are more visible and can be passed by a motor vehicle more quickly than two bicyclists in a line. She said Montana is one of only two states that prohibit two people from bicycling side by side.
Barnes said Usher’s bill has been drafted, but he has not said when it will be formally introduced.
“We’ll be alerting members if and when it goes to committee,” Barnes said.
Addition: In an interview with Rep. Usher after this story had been posted, he said he was surprised to see, once his bill had been drafted and analyzed, how broad it was, and how many state roads it would affect. He said he had no idea that so many roads lacked paved shoulders.
“I don’t want to ban bicycles,” he said. “I don’t want to kill tourism. I want bike safety.”
He said he spoke with the sponsors of the two other bicycle-related bills mentioned in the story, hoping to craft one bill that would cover all the issues, but their bills had already been titled, meaning he had to go forward with his alone.
He said several constituents raised the issue of bicycle safety with him, and his bill draft was an attempt to begin dealing with their concerns and was not a finished product. He said he would like to work with bicycle tour operators, tourism officials, bicycle shops and others to find a solution that works for all parties.
“The big key is, I’m looking for input,” he said, adding, “It’s not my intention to restrict tourism or access.”