With the federal funds which used to support bike /pedestrian trail development having been reduced by 82 percent over the past four years, the Billings Area Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) and the Billings City Council are seeking a new source of funding to build and maintain bike paths.
One of the options being considered by the City Council is to attach a fee to city monthly utility bills of $2 to $3, according to Ed Gulick, who is on the Planning Board and chairs the Advisory Committee. On Tuesday, Gulick presented the annual BPAC report to Yellowstone County Commissioners, who accepted it as part of the process of getting it approved through the Policy Coordinating Committee.
Gulick said that in order to complete the Marathon Loop, a 13 mile route of bike trails around Billings, and to continue the maintenance of existing trails, they need about $1 million annually. Except for a short piece near MetraPark, most of the trail that needs to be completed lies within the city limits.
A portion includes the Skyline Trail, which is estimated to cost $3.5 million to complete; the Zimmerman Trail, which will cost $3.15 million; Zoo-to-Riverfront Park Trail, at a cost of $2.5 million; The Alkali Creek Connection, $350,000; and the Dutcher Trail, $1.5 million.
Building a new trail costs about $350,000 per mile.
While there are other possibilities for funding, attaching a fee to utility bills appears the most promising, according to Gulick, who said that the utility customers would have the option to “opt out,” of paying the fee.
“Wouldn’t it be better to let them opt in rather than opt out?” asked County Commissioner John Ostlund, “A lot of people won’t even know it’s on the bill or that they have that option,” said Ostlund.
“The feeling is,” replied Gulick, “there is broad support, and those who oppose funding the trails, tend to be motivated to opt out.”
Further justifying, an approach that might dupe unaware city utility customers, Gulick added, “Everyone benefits from the trails, even if they don’t use them.”
Another funding option, Gulick pointed out, might be to form a special district for trails like the Lockwood Community Pedestrian Safety District, which has levied a one mill assessment on property owners and has been successful in building sidewalks and installing lighting for safety purposes in their community.
Still another method might be to issue a general obligation bond, an approach used in 1990 to generate $599,000, which lasted ten years and helped to leverage additional state and federal funding.
There remains one avenue of federal funding that amounts to about $225,000 CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation –Air Quality) funds, per year, which so far the city has spent on building street infrastructure. Gulick said that maybe in the future, given what his committee sees as broad support for trails in the community, the city will broaden the use of those funds.
More equitable distribution of funding might also be applied to funding the community receives from gas tax revenues, said Gulick, pointing out that bike trails help to reduce congestion on roads and streets. If one-half cent tax per gallon were dedicated to bike trails that would generate approximately $150,000-$200,000 toward their $1,000,000 goal each year.
The purpose of BPAC is to identify barriers to safely walk or bike in the community and recommend possible solutions, said Gulick.
The reason trails are needed, said Gulick, is “because we want to have opportunity for health. People won’t exercise unless they feel like they can safely do it.”
Trails contribute to a good quality of life, he continued, in allowing children to walk to school on their own, which save parents from having to shuttle them. The aging population needs to be able to bike and walk. And, the need to attract millennials to the community for labor, is benefited by the amenities of bike trails.
“We also have a unique asset in the rims and the river,” said Gulick.
Gulick cited a 2016 study (City of Billings Community Interest and Opinion Survey) which showed that there is broad support for bike trails in the community and in fact 54 percent preferred the development of trails over the development of parks.
The BPAC annual report also included as one of their 2017-18 success stories the fact that they helped raise $4,500 to purchase 50 new bike racks to replace “improper, unsanctioned bike racks” provided by private sector interests.