BILLINGS — A Montana Department of Transportation feasibility study identified a tunnel or overpass as long-term solutions to more efficiently move traffic around the railroad crossing at 27th Street in downtown Billings.
State transportation officials held a virtual public meeting last week to answer the public's questions about the study which had a goal to identify practical short and long-term solutions to the traffic-snarling railroad crossing at 27th Street.
Engineers have been working on the feasibility study for about two years, according to Project Manager Tim Erickson. Last year, Erickson was part of the team that first displayed the different concepts to the public.
“This study, we want boots on the ground turning over rocks, finding issues, finding potential solutions, finding pros and cons to improving overall safety and mobility of this crossing for the public and the entire community of Billings," Erickson said.
Erickson said people on the study have worked to gain input from community stakeholders like businesses around the proposed construction, neighborhood task forces, policy coordinating committees, Downtown Billings Alliance and TrailNet.
“We want to find out what should and can be implemented in the future here to improve safety and mobility for this crossing and for the community of Billings," Erickson said.
The rail crossing at 27th street was identified by the state in 2016 as one that could be improved. Erickson said the study primarily looked at the area of 27th Street between its intersections with Third Avenue North and Third Avenue South.
Both a tunnel and an overpass would have the benefit of allowing traffic with the intended destinations of Interstate 90 to the south or Highway 3 to the north the ability to move more quickly through downtown Billings.
Both also allow pedestrian and vehicle travel at street level, with the overpass and tunnel north/south lanes pushed to the center and street level north/south lanes positioned on either side.
“What this leaves is then the traffic, the pedestrians, and other users that want to be in the downtown area, want to connect to the businesses, want to connect to the different side streets and cross streets can connect to the areas of downtown where they want to be," Erickson said.
As far as cost, the tunnel is the more expensive option, coming in at $85 million compared to the overpass's $35 to $40 million, Erickson said. The totals were figured in today's dollars and do not account for inflation.
Along with being the cheaper option, the overpass keeps the cross streets on 27th Street more connected. The tunnel would sever Second Avenue North and Minnesota Avenue at their intersections with 27th Street, forcing those intersections to become right turn only.
The overpass would begin on the south side of the intersection at North 27th Street and Second Avenue North and end on the south side of the railroad tracks. Erickson said the preliminary design found the present turn lane directions could be kept with the overpass, but more engineering work is needed to make sure road users have good sight lines.
"What is defined as sight distance is the ability for the driver or users to safely see other vehicles or pedestrians to avoid conflicts. But at this time, the overpass option does allow maintained access on all cross streets with all current movements as would be experienced at the intersections today," Erickson said.
The only conflict with the overpass would be a property on the southwest corner of Second Avenue North and North 27th Street. Erickson said engineers would need to do more specific work to ensure access is maintained to the building and that the sidewalk is constructed to be at the same level as the street.
“That actual level of engineering has not been put on the paper yet for determining what could be done there as well as discussions with that property owner to determine what concerns or improvement options may or may not be available for that," Erickson said.
Erickson said a six or seven member aesthetics committee is being put together made up of different community stakeholders to figure out how to beautify the large concrete structure if it were to be constructed. Erickson mentioned opportunities for medians with landscaping, art installations or events like a farmers market for the space around the overpass.
“How could this structure really fit in and be a place that people want to be that enhances the downtown area versus just a standard concrete structure that would be going through downtown," Erickson said.
An advantage of the tunnel is increased opportunities for pedestrian traffic where the tunnel goes under the road, Erickson said. The tunnel would be big enough to fit all highway-legal vehicles, including semi trucks.
“In particular between Montana Avenue and First Avenue North, traffic does have the ability to move in towards the center which then widens out the bike/pedestrian and other opportunities on the outside of the roadway. That provides those opportunities for the various users within that area for the connectivity with the businesses and connectivity to other parts of Billings," Erickson said.
The tunnel would begin at the intersection of First Avenue South and South 27th Street and get back to street level on North 27th Street between Second and Third Avenues North. Access to 27th Street intersections would be maintained at First Avenue South, Montana Avenue and First Avenue North with the tunnel.
The next step for state transportation officials on the feasibility study is to nail down which option, tunnel or overpass, is best for the community. Erickson said the preferred alternative would be primarily focused on the long-term solution of a tunnel or overpass.
“The idea would be to determine a preferred alternative, primarily focused on a long-term alternative that is best for the community and the plan for that would be to identify that sometime in early 2021," Erickson said.
Once an option is chosen, preliminary design could start in 2021, then allowing Montana Department of Transportation to incorporate the project into its five-year spending plan and actually get built. Erickson said the project is currently not in the plan, pending the completion of the feasibility study.
Erickson estimated that construction would take two seasons on either project, but the tunnel would be more labor intensive due to the water, sewer, internet and other lines that run underground in the area.
For traffic on 27th Street during the construction period, Erickson said the overpass could keep traffic flowing with planned closures. The tunnel on the other hand would shut down 27th Street Traffic completely for its duration due to the underground infrastructure relocation and specialized construction techniques that would have to be employed.
At the meeting, the public brought questions about why raising or lowering the railroad hadn't been considered to allow traffic to pass through.
Erickson said the transportation department has worked with Montana Rail Link, the company that owns the rail line, in the past on that issue. He said other studies found that raising, lowering or relocating the rail line would sever most, if not all of the rail spurs that connect downtown and industrial businesses to the railroad.
The Montana Department of Transportation is accepting public comment on the 27th Street railroad crossing project. To find a link to submit a comment online, view the entire public meeting or learn more about the project, visit the state's website by clicking here.