By CAL CUMIN - For The Outpost
The new Alkali Creek Bridge recently completed as part of the Bench Connector Montana Department of Highways construction project was actually in use before the paving and guardrail were even complete. As soon as the bridge girders were covered, members of the local transient population moved underneath.
They like the ends of the bridge where the huge girders fit into the concrete providing small, cramped compartments basically enclosed on three sides but open to the creek bottom. Alkali Creek in this area flows through Earl Guss Park, a county park; the stream itself was rerouted to its present meander by the construction of MetraPark.
Bruce Larsen, park neighbor and unofficial caretaker, has calculated that the new bridge “should be able to accommodate 10-20 transients depending on the density per unit [compartment]”; this is based on the six 175-foot foot girders providing five spaces at each end of the bridge — kind of like an airy apartment complex.
Larsen, a member of the County Board of Park Commissioners, is known for his meticulous design-build work, from casino interiors to modifying the Park Department’s mower trailer — and for mathematically quantifying potential park problems.
He sympathizes with the homeless but notes that overnight camping in any county park is illegal, and that it is the mess created by the people camping under the bridge or in the dense brush of some of the parks — such as nearby Two Moon - that is the problem. The tarps and blankets put up under the bridge are visible from nearby roads. Garbage, ranging from feces and makeshift fire pits to empty rubbing alcohol, liquor, and beer containers, lead from the bridge ends down to and into the creek bottom.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Tim Paulson, head of the County Sign Department. “What a mess; they moved in quickly!”
Law enforcement seems reluctant to do anything about the bridge residents, says Larsen, so signs stating “no camping” and citing the specific county regulation pertaining thereto have been placed in readily visible locations. The area contains the MetraPark Trail section of the Jim Dutcher Trail, part of Billings’ Heritage Trail system, and park-specific trails lead under the bridge as does the Alkali Creek Trail going under Main Street. Allowing unmitigated growth and use of the bridge area by transients will probably create an adverse reaction from the recreating public, including children, bicyclists, and dog walkers.
That, in turn, will lead to complaints that must be addressed not only by the County Park Board but by the community as a whole.