Nearly 13 years after it was proposed, a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks in downtown Billings might finally be built this summer.
Chris Hertz, an engineer with the city’s Public Works Department, expects to call for construction bids by mid-May, which would mean beginning construction in mid-June.
The long-awaited bridge barely survived its final vote by the Billings City Council on Monday night. The vote was 5-4, with one absence and one abstention, to approve an easement and construction and maintenance agreement with Montana Rail Link.
Steel supports on either side of the tracks at 25th Street would be built first. The bridge, a century-old structure that once spanned Rock Creek, would then be trucked in from Joliet and mounted over the tracks. Hertz said the project could be done sometime in September.
“It’s definitely one of the more complicated projects we’ve worked on,” he said.
It’s been so complicated that previous construction estimates have proven much too optimistic. In 2010, the transportation planner with the city-county Planning Department, Scott Walker, said that “with any luck,” the project would be done by the fall of 2011.
“We weren’t lucky,” Walker said Monday.
Montana Rail Link, which owns the railroad property in downtown Billings, was quite cooperative and not to blame for any of the delays, he said. And the blame doesn’t lie with any one of the other agencies involved in the project, he said; it’s just that there were so many of them.
Besides the planning and public works departments, agencies that signed off on various aspects of the project included the Montana Department of Transportation, the downtown Billings Improvement District, the Downtown Billings Association and the Billings Depot.
“It’s just hard to go through the process,” Walker said. “We’ve never done anything like this.”
The steel-truss bridge, 18 feet wide and 111 feet long, would be 24 feet above the ground, with stairs and an “incline lift” on either end. The lift, for handicapped access, would basically be a miniature cable railway, with a carriage pulled by a cable from the ground to the deck of the bridge. The stairs would also be equipped with a ramp along their edge so bicyclists can push their bikes up or down.
Hertz said an elevator for handicapped access was ruled out early in the process because of concerns about vandalism or breakdowns. A ramp was also ruled out because to have a gradual ascent it would have been nearly a block long.
The bridge was proposed in 2001 by High Plains Architects, one of seven firms invited to contribute to an “urban design sketchbook” that was part of a follow-up to a larger planning process for the downtown.
Randy Hafer, co-owner of High Plains, said his firm originally proposed building two bridges, one at 25th Street and the other at 30th, as part of a pedestrian loop tying the Montana-Minnesota-avenues historic district together.
City Councilman Brent Cromley of Ward 1, which encompasses the bridge, said Monday night he was opposed to the bridge partly because of its location. He said South 25th Street gets little use, and he feared that the bridge might also be rarely used and end up in disrepair.
Hafer said a second bridge could still be built in the future, but he expects the bridge at 25th Street to spur a new round of development on Minnesota Avenue.
“I think it’s going to be huge,” he said.
There is already talk of reviving Old Town Neighbors Inc., a group of property owners who were trying to encourage a Montana Avenue-like renaissance across the tracks.
A parking lot next to the bridge on Minnesota Avenue was meant to anchor the east end of the Old Town Neighborhood, Hafer said, and the Parking Advisory Board previously expressed interest in building a lot there. He said he hopes the board will take up that subject again.
The total cost of the bridge project is estimated at a little more than $1 million, most of which is coming from federal transportation funds, administered by the MDT. Smaller local contributions came from the city, the DBA, BikeNet, the Sample Foundation and the Scott Fund/US Bank.
The bridge is owned by Charles Ringer, a metal sculptor who has had the structure on his property in Joliet since 1988. It was built over Rock Creek in 1901 as a horse-and-buggy bridge and was bought by Ringer after it was decommissioned.
He is still willing to sell it to the city, Hertz said. The city is researching how to move it to Billings. Hertz said it might have to go by way of Columbus to avoid overpasses and other obstacles.
Like Hafer, DBA director Lisa Harmon thinks the bridge will be a big help to Minnesota Avenue.
“It’s going to stimulate and catalyze a lot of development on Minnesota,” she said. “We’re excited about it.”
Once it’s in place, she said, the DBA will begin to explore the possibility of installing public art on the bridge, a concept that has been talked about since the bridge was proposed.
Hafer expects the bridge to be great for pedestrians and bicyclists but also an attraction itself, thanks to the cable car and the interesting view of downtown Billings from the 24-foot-high deck.
“I think that incline lift is going to prove to be a really popular thing, especially for families,” he said.