BILLINGS — A downtown traffic study showed safety and traffic benefits to changing some streets from one-way to two-way, among other changes, the Billings City Council heard at a Tuesday night work session.
“This is several years in the making, this conversation," Billings City Administrator Chris Kukulski said at the meeting. "I’m really excited about the discussion. I think that has a lot of promise to reinvigorate downtown Billings."
The downtown traffic study conducted by Kittelson & Associates was started in May 2018. The Portland, Ore.-based traffic research company analyzed intersections in downtown Billings from First Avenue South northward to Sixth Avenue North.
The study looked at about 170 intersections.
Erin Claunch with the Billings Public Works Engineering Division presented the study's findings to the council. He said the study's purpose wasn't to prioritize the projects, but to find a list of acceptable projects that would work well for the city.
“We wanted to have a comprehensive study that we could be confident behind any individual alternative in conjunction with, say, another alternative that everything would work," Claunch said. "Not just look at one individual project with blinders on.”
First, the study looked at existing traffic conditions downtown. From there, staff were able to project traffic numbers out to 2040. This data helped staff identify intersections that, in the future, will be more congested if Billings keeps growing and no streets are changed.
"It gives us a good apples-to-apples comparison,” Claunch said.
Between the current and projected traffic congestion maps, generally the internal downtown intersections saw no change, but the streets feeding into downtown got worse.
Claunch said Billings is unique in the fact that a majority of its population lives on the east and west ends of town. A majority of people traveling from one end to the other have to pass through downtown at some point.
"A lot of that car traffic is traveling through downtown," Claunch said. "We found that the two ways on those streets were a hindrance to that.”
The list of proposed changes includes a change dubbed the "North/South 2-ways." This project would change change North 34th - North 29th Streets to two-ways between Sixth Avenue North and Montana Avenue.
Highlights of the North/South 2-Ways include: increased driver mobility, increased pedestrian safety and minimal change in traffic congestion. A minimal amount of 16 parking spots would be lost because of the extra room needed for turn lanes. The downside of this project is Billings could lose up to 70 parking spaces depending on the choices made with angle parking and bike lanes.
Another change is called Second/Third Avenue North 2-Ways. This project would change both Second and Third Avenues North to two-way streets.
The benefits of this project are similar to the last as far as safety improvement. This project calls for the bike lane already on the east side of Second Avenue North to continue the full length of the street. On the downside, this project would cause a loss of 35-60 parking spaces.
Next is a proposed lane removal from Montana Avenue, making the street a two-lane one-way.
Claunch said the study found the average time it takes a vehicle to travel through the Montana Avenue corridor is about 2.5 minutes. This project would add to that time by about 20 seconds. The benefit to removing a lane would be the ability for the city to add 47 parking spaces on the road.
Since Montana Avenue is maintained by the state, the city will have to work closely with the Montana Department of Transportation to approve any work to be done.
A lane may be removed from Sixth Avenue North where the road intersects with Main Street. This project calls for Sixth Avenue North to be reduced from five lanes to four starting at Main Street, and continuing to North 13th Street.
The state maintains Main Street because it is part of the state highway. The state is currently researching a change in how many lanes come from Bench Boulevard onto Sixth Avenue North and Main Street. Claunch said the city will have to work with the state to make sure the governments don't step on each others' toes.
Next is the removal of one of the four lanes on North 13th Street. Claunch said the traffic projections don't show the need for four lanes. This project would give North 13th a turn lane at each intersection. As well, it would provide more parking space, bike lane connectivity, and no increase to congestion.
Finally, Claunch presented the idea of closing North Broadway between the blocks of Third and Fourth avenues North. Claunch said this idea first came about during discussions of the One Big Sky District in this spring's Montana Legislature.
Claunch said the city could choose to close off North 29th Street as well because the streets share similar amounts of traffic and would give the same minimal delay issues.
Clauch said downtown Billings traffic would be safer and more friendly to local businesses if all the changes are made.
"If all the alternatives could function from a traffic perspective," Claunch said. "It would allow us to add traffic calming measures through the one-way to two-way conversions. "It would increase the visibility of the businesses. It would increase expectations of drivers which then lowers the chance of accidents because they are expecting people from everywhere so it increases the safety. And it gives us the opportunity to play with whether we want to add angle parking or additional bike facilities."
If the city gave the green light to all the projects, the total cost would be between $10-12 million.
Next, the council will ask the public's opinion the proposed changes and find a funding source for the projects.
The final draft of the downtown Billings traffic changes is scheduled to be complete in March 2020.