Progress made, challenges ahead, trail supporters hear

Ghost

Courtesy of Billings TrailNet

A “ghost bike” at the Swords Lane bypass at Sixth Avenue North commemorates the death here of bicyclist James Clark on Feb. 8.

Members of Billings TrailNet celebrated their accomplishments at their annual meeting on Tuesday but also heard a couple of sobering reminders.

One is that federal funding has declined sharply, meaning that TrailNet must count on providing 100 percent of funding for new projects. Another was a reminder that despite great improvements in the local trail system, bicycling can still be dangerous in city traffic.

About 75 of TrailNet’s nearly 500 members filled the Community Room at the Billings Public Library for the meeting. They heard updates on completed or planned projects and presented awards for outstanding work.

Most of the news was good: The organization took in more money than it spent in 2015; it built four trails and bikeways and helped out on 10 altogether; it installed more places to park bikes safely; and it launched an etiquette campaign to make bicycle travel safer and more convenient.

But Executive Direct Kristi Drake said that diminishing federal funding means that TrailNet will have to provide up to 100 percent of funding for future projects.

After the meeting, Scott Walker of the city-county planning department said the city used to receive $450,000 to $650,000 a year through the federal Community Transportation Enhancement Program.

Now, through the Transportation Alternatives program, the state as a whole gets $3 million to $4 million to spend over a two-year period. With a cost of about $350,000 to construct a mile of 10-foot wide trail, that money doesn’t go far. In addition, local communities have to apply for funding for specific projects, which leaves substantial uncertainty about what funds will be available.

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In the first round of TA funding, Walker said, the city got approval for a trail along Broadwater Avenue from 32nd Street West to Shiloh Road. Just last week, the city learned that it has been awarded for a project on Becraft Lane in Lockwood.

Dave Mumford, director of public works for the city of Billings, told TrailNet members that it’s easy to overlook how much progress has been made.

“Eleven years ago, we really had no trails,” he said. “Sometimes it seems like it takes forever, but we have done a lot.”

Indeed, he and Drake both noted that Billings was featured recently in Sunset magazine, which named the city one of the West’s best sustainable communities.

Mumford said the city has only about $3.6 million a year for arterial road construction, but building a single mile of an arterial road can cost up to $5.7 million.

“Funding is pretty shallow,” he said.

He was responding in part to comments asking for a trail along Sixth Avenue North so bicyclists could travel more safely from the Heights to downtown. On Feb. 8, bicyclist James Clark was killed at the Swords Lane bypass and Sixth Avenue North.

A vigil has been set at that spot for 6:45 a.m. March 8 both to remember Clark and as a reminder that hazards exist for bicycle riders, said TrailNet’s Kevin Odenthal. A “ghost bike”—a bicycle painted white in Clark’s memory—also has been placed anonymously at the site.

Odenthal said that the exact cause of Clark’s accident remains under investigation but that it was one of several bicycle or pedestrian accidents in Billings in recent years. He said he did not know Clark but planned to attend the vigil to help increase awareness of the need for safety.

Better connections between bike paths and more places to safely park bikes are needed, he said.

“As we become more of a biking community, we need more infrastructure to make it convenient for everybody,” he said.

Odenthal also told TrailNet members that a spring fundraiser is being considered to complement the Ales for Trails event, which raised about 60 percent of TrailNet’s income last year. An additional event would reduce the chances of bad weather taking out a major portion of the organization’s budget, he said.

TrailNet also plans a new event on May 1 of this year, the Tour de Fleur ride for women. The aim is to use baskets of flowers to help encourage women to do more biking downtown.

Ales for Trails netted $72,000 last year, Drake said. Substantial donations also included $12,000 from the Heart and Sole Run, $10,000 from St. Vincent Healthcare, $7,000 from the Office on Women’s Health and a recurring anonymous donation of $5,000.

Projects in the works, Mumford said, include a trail adjacent to Colton Boulevard west of Zimmerman Trail, a trail on Grand Avenue between 32nd Street West and Shiloh Road (with bids to be taken beginning today), a trail from Grand Avenue to the new Ben Steele Middle School, and a trail adjacent to Orchard Lane.

TrailNet presented its annual Trail Champion Award to Donnette Roberts, owner of Anytime Fitness and the daughter of James H. Sindelar, who is donating the John H. Dover Park to the Yellowstone River Parks Association.

Roberts said she weighed 280 pounds when she graduated from high school, which made her an unlikely candidate to own a business that promotes fitness and to win an award that does the same.

“This really means a lot to me,” she said. “I feel like I’ve won the Academy Awards.”

The President’s Award went to Elyse Monat, a member of the TrailNet staff and of Americorps who was particularly active in the group’s educational efforts.