Some people who drove to downtown Billings for shopping or entertainment in the wake of December’s big snowstorms may have discovered a new and occasionally perilous form of exercise.
Once they parked their cars, they either had to walk to the end of the block on icy streets or climb over a steep berm of snow to access the parking meters. That wasn’t a situation that made downtown merchants or downtown shoppers very happy.
In the words of Dave Mumford, director of the city’s Public Works Department, “We want to make it so people coming downtown don’t have to use crampons and ropes to get to the sidewalk.”
One possible solution being considered is the creation of maintenance routes in the core of the downtown. If established, affected streets would have parking only on one side of the street each night, to give snowplows and street sweepers a chance to do their work in a more complete and consistent manner.
Mumford said there was talk of establishing maintenance routes a couple of years ago, but there was never enough support to really pursue the idea. He thinks that might have changed, thanks to the increasing number of cars parked downtown overnight and to this winter’s heavy snows.
Greg Kreuger, development director for the Downtown Billings Alliance, agreed with Mumford’s assessment.
“I think it’s a good idea and I think it’s time,” he said.
Now the DBA will have to do a more detailed survey of downtown businesses and property owners to make sure the proposal has broad enough support to move forward.
Mumford said Public Works and the DBA will keep the City Council informed and will solicit council members’ input, but the department would not need the council’s formal approval to institute the new routes.
“It doesn’t take council action to do it, but we need to be sure they’re aware of it and don’t have any concerns,” he said.
The problem is that downtown streets are plowed out from the curbs to the center line, creating a berm in the middle of the street, and city crews try to clear away the berms within a couple of days of each storm.
Meanwhile, property owners and DBA maintenance crews are shoveling and plowing sidewalks, pushing the snow to the edge of the curb. If they shovel the snow into the street and cars are parked there, city plows can’t push it to the center line, so the snow stays on the edge of the sidewalk, forming a rampart between the curb and the parking meters.
A similar situation hampers street sweepers, Mumford said. If a sweeper has to swing wide around just one diagonally parked car, it ends up missing a substantial portion of the entire block.
If there were maintenance routes, signs would be put up informing people that they could park on one side of the street, say, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and on the other side of the street on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. It would have to be year-round so there was consistency and people could get used to the schedule, Mumford said.
The parking restrictions would probably be in place over night, maybe from midnight to 6 a.m., he said.
Mumford and Kreuger both said they may be able to take some steps to lessen the impact of the new policy, if it were adopted. They said they don’t want to penalize bar-goers who make the responsible decision to call a cab and leave their car downtown.
One solution would be to have the DBA contract with a wrecker that could tow the cars to the other side of the street or around the corner, which the DBA has done in advance of some special events that require street closures. Mumford said contractors that do street projects like chip-sealing for the city have also paid wreckers to tow cars out of the way, but not impound them.
Over time, people who drive downtown or people who live downtown and park overnight on city streets would just have to get used to the new rules.
“I think it’s all in the advertising, in how we get the message out,” Kreuger said.
Tracy Scott, manager of the city’s parking division, who attended the BID meeting with Mumford, said the division and the Billings Parking Board would be involved to some extent in creating the district, to lend their expertise and perspective to the process.
The division would also have to help figure out how violators would be ticketed, since its parking enforcement workers are on the job from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, hours unaffected by overnight restrictions.
Mumford told the BID board that the time is probably ripe for creating maintenance routes because there is a growing realization that Billings has ceased being a small town and has reached the size where people expect more from city government.
Another key factor is the slow but steady addition of downtown housing, putting more and more cars downtown on a 24-hour basis. It’s too late to think of creating maintenance routes this winter, Mumford said, but he wants council members and downtown property owners to be aware of what might be on the horizon.
“If we don’t start the conversation now with them, we won’t have it next winter,” he said.