(Billings, MT – YPR) – A leading member of the Congressional conference committee working on a transportation reauthorization bill doubts the panel will craft a full reauthorization bill by the June 30th deadline.
“Not this time,” says Senator Max Baucus (D-MT). “I don’t think there’s enough time in Congress. Believe it or not there’s not that many legislative days before Congress adjourns in October. But we’ve set it up so we have more than enough time next year to do a full reauthorization as a full 5 year bill.”
The current legislation expired in 2009.
Baucus (D-MT) chairs the Senate Finance Committee and the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He’s a ranking member of the conference committee tasked with finding common ground on a transportation bill before the current extension runs out at the end of June.
“I think everyone realizes that we’ve got to pass a highway bill and we’ll get it done,” says Baucus.
Baucus invited ambassadors from 5 foreign countries to visit several Montana communities this week to talk about trade opportunities.
He says the transportation conference committee is still working on issues, like the Keystone X-L pipeline. Some members of Congress want this and other projects inserted into the transportation bill. The original Keystone X-L project sought to build a 1,179 mile pipeline from the Tar Sand Fields in Alberta, Canada to refineries along the U-S Gulf Coast.
“Having said that, the main point is that we are close to figuring out how to pay for the highway bill so we can extend it until next September,” Baucus says. “Hopefully for a little bit longer than that but at least to next September.” (September 2013)
Baucus says Congress knows businessmen, highway contractors and states are looking for more certainty when it comes to transportation funding.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – The panel charged with reviewing all pipelines that cross Montana’s rivers and streams in the wake of last year’s ExxonMobil oil pipeline break into the Yellowstone River is to issue its final report to Governor Brian Schweitzer this summer.
Schweitzer, D-MT, issued an executive order creating the review council after the Silvertip Pipeline ruptured last July releasing an estimated 1,000 barrels of crude into the Yellowstone River.
Officials think floodwaters scoured the bottom of the Yellowstone River, exposing the pipeline. Exxon Mobil estimated the spill clean up costs at about $135 million dollars.
Schweitzer directed the Montana Oil Pipeline Safety Review Council to assess the risk of ruptures and leaks for each pipeline that crosses a Montana waterway, including the pipeline’s location and the condition of emergency shut-off valves.
“We now have at our fingertips information on where those pipelines are and who they belong to,” says Bonnie Lovelace, regulatory affairs manager for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. She says key pieces of information are the locations of shut-off valves and whether companies have the latest technology for leak-detection.
“Which means pipeline companies having their control rooms watching those valves and having alarms that tell them that there’s a problem,” she says. Then quickly shutting down the flow.
Lovelace says one result of the review was the creation of an interactive Montana Pipeline Safety Map. She says the data came from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) from information from pipeline owners and operators. She says the database also includes: aerial photographs, topographic maps, property boundaries/ownership, wells, and monitoring stations.
Lovelace says one of the most significant lessons leaned from the Silvertip Pipeline break was the need for information.
“After realizing such a thing could happen, every body’s concerned about could it happen again,” she says. “Are there things we can do to be ready or to essentially prevent a further incident that we had on the Yellowstone River?”
Lovelace says that means working cooperatively with and supporting the U-S Transportation Department’s PHMSA, which regulates the nation’s 2.3 million miles of pipelines.
In the wake of the Silvertip Pipeline rupture, opponents called for tougher state and federal regulations for the proposed Keystone X-L pipeline project. The 1,700 mile pipeline proposal would transport crude from tar sand oil fields in Alberta, Canada and the Bakken Oil Fields in eastern Montana and western North Dakota to refineries on the U-S Gulf coast. The Obama Administration denied TransCanada’s permit last January on the grounds the congressionally mandated deadline did not give federal officials enough time to evaluate the proposal. TransCanada has since offered a shorter pipeline project from Cushing, OK to Port Arthur, TX, including a new route through Nebraska that skirts that state’s environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region and the Ogallala acquifer, the main water source for Nebraska residents.
In Montana, the Pipeline Safety Review Council identified 9,206 pipeline river crossings in Montana. “So we have lots and lots of network of pipelines throughout Montana,” she says. “It’s like a spider web.”
The Pipeline Safety Review Council is made up of the directors of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, The Montana Department of Transportation, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
The panel made 6 recommendations. Public comments on the report will be accepted until June 27, 2012. The Pipeline Safety Review Council plans to deliver a final report to the governor July 18, 2012.
(Red Lodge, MT - YPR) – Snow, blowing snow, and icy road conditions kept most of the scenic Beartooth Pass closed over the Memorial Day weekend. The high-elevation highway skirts the Montana-Wyoming border and leads to the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The highest point along this All-American Road is at the West Summit/Beartooth Pass Overlook at 10,947 feet.
Montana highway crews clear snow from the road just south of Red Lodge to the Wyoming-border. National Park Service Crews take over from there into Yellowstone Park. Crews had the road cleared for the traditional start to the summer tourist season, but a late spring snow storm delayed the opening to motorized vehicles.
Winter conditions meant the crews could keep the road open only to the Rock Creek Vista Point rest area. Later, however, crews closed the road because of icy road conditions.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – The Memorial Day weekend marks the opening of one of Montana’s most scenic mountain highways and the gateway to the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. But that opening was delayed Friday as Beartooth Pass was closed due to snow and ice.
Montana Department of Transportation and National Park Service crews have been clearing away snow from the Beartooth Highway, a 68-mile road that winds through three National Forests across the Beartooth Mountain range. At its highest elevation, the road climbs to 10,947 feet.
Yellowstone National Park is open for the summer season, but park officials warn visitors some roads may be closed due to weather or road construction.
For more pictures of the Beartooth Highway, check out flickr.
For Senator Max Baucus, the transportation bill's benefits to his home state boil down to this: jobs.
The bipartisan conference committee charged with finding a federal transportation bill compromise between the Senate and the House versions held its first official meeting yesterday.
“Construction season has started,” Baucus says. “14,000 Montana jobs and 1.6 million jobs across America depend on this highway bill.”
He says the Senate reauthorization bill doesn’t add to the federal deficit, keeps the Highway Trust Fund Solvent, and institutes reforms.
Baucus also chairs the Senate Environment and Public Work’s (EPW) Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee.
Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is the ranking Republican on EPW. He says as one of the most conservative members of Congress he’s a supporter of investing in infrastructure.
“On issues like national security and infrastructure I’m a big spender,” he says. “That’s what I think we’re supposed to be doing here.”
Inhofe says simply passing extensions of the current legislation throws away money that would otherwise pay for infrastructure projects.
The Republican controlled U-S House passed the most recent extension. One of the sticking points has been over the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline project that would transport oil from Canada’s tar sand fields to refineries along the U-S Gulf coast. It would also transport oil from the Bakken Oil fields in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota.
Senator John Hoven, R-ND, says support for the Keystone XL has been bipartisan. He adds without the pipeline, oil producers are relying instead on 500 semis a day to transport Bakken crude.
“And we want to send 100,000 barrels of oil to market,” he says. He says those 500 trucks a day are destroying roads, “and creating a real safety issue for our people.”
“My hope is the House Republicans will not hold the entire country’s transportation infrastructure hostage over these extraneous provisions,” Waxman says. “Let’s not jeopardize this opportunity to create jobs with ill conceived, anti-environmental amendments.”
There are 47 members on the bipartisan Surface Transportation Conference Committee. Senator Barbara Boxer, D-CA, is the chair. U-S Representative John Mica, R-FL, is the vice chair.
The current extension expires June 30, 2012.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – Montana will soon join about 8 other states where law enforcement can immediately verify whether a driver has liability insurance as required by state laws.
“It’s one more tool in our tool box to make sure people comply with the law,” says Col. Mike Tooley, chief of the Montana Highway Patrol (MHP).
He says the instant verification system will allow troopers out on the highway to know immediately if a motorist has insurance and whether the proof of insurance card is legitimate. “In the past it would be pretty easy to show a card that was maybe manufactured illegally or maybe someone bought insurance and turned right around and cancelled it and still had the card.”
On May 21, 2012, MHP troopers in the southwestern district will begin using the new Montana Insurance Verification System (MTIVS). Soon after, MHP troopers statewide will have access to the system. By late summer or early fall, MTIVS will be available to all Montana law enforcement agencies.
Tooley adds the system will provide a convenience for drivers who have insurance but cannot find proof. If they are given a citation, that driver will have to appear in court to show proof of insurance. A ticket for not having insurance can cost up to $285 for the first offense.
“It’s a common sense tool for Montanans who expect their neighbors to carry insurance, like the law requires,” says Brenda Nordlund, administrator of the state’s Motor Vehicle Division. “They (Montanans) expect that technology will give you the ability to verify insurance without having to fumble through that jockey box.”
Law enforcement official say studies indicate about 85% of Montanans comply with the automotive liability insurance requirement.
State Justice Department officials say Montana joins California Wyoming, Utah, Texas, South Carolina, Florida, and Washington, DC in having an instant insurance verification system for law enforcement.
Nordlund says many states have some element of insurance reporting, but it tends to be cumbersome, expensive and quickly outdated.
“When I’ve talked about what Montana is doing, I’ve described us as going from 0 to 60 (MPH) because we’ve never had a reporting system from the insurance companies,” she says. “This is the most streamlined manner of verifying insurance because we’re not going to a database. Our inquiry goes over the web directly to the insurance company to say, ‘confirmed’ or ‘not.’”
The 2009 Montana Legislature authorized MITIVS. The system has an annual cost of about $539,000. Motorists pay for the system through a fee tacked on for a license plate.
(Culbertson, MT – YPR) – The mayor of Culbertson Gordon Oelkers says one of the biggest complaints he hears from residents in this northeastern Montana town is how the semis going to and from one of the biggest oil plays in the U-S is tearing up the roads.
U-S Senator Max Baucus met with the town’s residents to hear their concerns and discuss possible solutions.
“Oh my,” said Baucus as a woman handed him a picture of her broken china cabinet.
“That was a glass shelf,” she said as Baucus looked at the pile of broken dishes. “And we’re right on the highway. I’m constantly going in and pushing the dishes back on the shelf so they (the dishes) don’t fall. Yesterday it (the glass shelf) just cracked.”
The town of 700 people was once part of the out-migration taking place in Eastern Montana. Now the town is suffering from growing pains because of the oil boom in the Williston Basin, specifically the Bakken. The Montana Department of Transportation is currently studying traffic on the roads. The community is asking Baucus for help with funding once the study is completed.
The Democrat chairs the Senate subcommittee charged with overseeing the federal transportation bill. The Senate recently passed a reauthorization bill, but it stalled in the House.
“It’s getting a little high-centered,” said Baucus. “But it’s going to have to break loose. I just urge you, and me, to try to figure out how to modify that legislation to address this part of the country.”
He said the problem is Congress is moving away from earmarks, a specific road, for example. But maybe money can be designated for a region. Texas roads are also being damaged by an oil boom.
“I hate to tell you this but there are a lot of people back there who feel there should not be a federal highway program. Rather that each state should take care of its own road needs, period,” Baucus said. “And that’s gaining a little bit of a head of steam, frankly. It’s nuts. It makes no sense. We wouldn’t have any highway program if that’s the case.”
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the population of Billings is just over 104,000 people and is the largest city in Montana.
(Billings, MT - YPR) – The State of Montana is adding more commercial drivers license (CDL) examiners to meet the demand for semi-truck drivers to serve what’s becoming the largest oil play in the U.S. The Bakken oil field is located in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota.
“The oil boom is providing Montanans an opportunity for good paying jobs,” says State Attorney General Steve Bullock in a press release. “I wanted to make sure limited staffing in the Motor Vehicle Division wasn’t holding companies back from hiring Montanans.”
Bullock says the MVD will hire four new people: three CDL examiners and one customer service clerk. Gas tax money will be used in the interim to fund those positions.
Statistics from the Montana MVD show there’s been a 23 percent increase in new CDLs issued since 2009 and a 44 percent increase in CDL renewals. Officials say while the demand for CDLs is statewide, a significant portion of that increase is from Eastern Montana.
“It’s a statewide problem intensified that much more by the Bakken,” says Bullock. “So we’re focusing on some additional resources in the Sidney-Glasgow-Glendive [area of Eastern Montana], but it’s also important that someone in Missoula can get their CDL that much quicker because they’re going to be working right there out of Missoula or they’re going to be going over to the Bakken.”
To help deal with the backlog of CDL skills exams in Eastern Montana, officials are adjusting staffing and schedules. Officials expect that will provide 18 more skills tests a month. Each exam takes at least two hours. In addition, Bullock says 5 existing employees will be upgraded to CDL examiners.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – Asian markets are demanding more fossil fuels from the Rocky Mountain area and that has some environmental groups in the state worried as plans to transport more coal by rail take shape the coal-rich Powder River basin in Montana and Wyoming.
The Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council (YVCC) , an affiliate of the conservation group Northern Plains Resource Council, was one of the sponsors of a two-day conference in Billings, Mont. to discuss how to mitigate any increase in rail traffic. Railroad tracks cut right through downtown Billings. Their concern is heightened as plans to build a shipping terminal near Longview, WA have resurfaced.
The conference brochure states, “About 22 freight trains a day pass through Billings. Increased coal export could add about 40 more trains a day.”
Organizers say train traffic already causes traffic congestion and delayed emergency service response. They add, increased coal train traffic would exacerbate that and there’s the added public health concern about flying coal dust.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway spokesman Zak Andersen of Fort Worth, Tex. says he understands the concerns of communities across the West, including Billings, about the possibility of increased coal train traffic. But he calls the figures cited by YVCC speculation.
“It seems to be based around the anticipation of exporting coal off the West Coast,” he says. “There are several facilities proposed. They’re in the process of getting permitted. None of them are built. So until any of them are built, you really don’t know what the amount of (train) traffic will be.”
Concern about rail traffic is not new, says Candi Beaudry, planning director for the city of Billings. She says the first study on the issue came out in 1960. She says coming up with a mitigation plan is easy.
“But where are we going to find the money? The money is huge as far as the obstacle to resolving the problem,” she says.
Beaudry says this is an issue confronting communities across the country. She notes, for example, the BNSF and Montana Rail Link rail lines would have to cross Montana, Idaho, and Washington on their way to any West Coast port.
“They’re all experiencing and all dreading the impacts of increased rail traffic,” she says. “So we may not be looking at just a local solution but possibly a regional and hopefully a global solution.”
Some environmental groups are opposed to expanding or building new port terminals out of concern of the climate impacts of burning more coal. But BNSF’s Zak Andersen says the railway also uses those ports to export Montana agricultural products to Asia.
Beaudry told conference attendees about the project in Reno, NV that lowered the train tracks just over 30 feet. The project cost: $265 million.
She says Reno did not undertake this project because of coal trains. “They did have a lot of train traffic,” Beaudry says. “But what was the driving impetus behind this project is that they felt their downtown was losing business and they really wanted to revitalize the downtown area.”
“I don’t want to see the trains go away,” says Greg Krueger, development director of the Downtown Billings Partnership (DBA). The Billings native says he’s one of those who gets caught waiting for trains downtown.
“I’ve also waited in line at Target. I’ve also waited in line to go through security at the airport,” he says. “Waiting is a part of life. So I think we have to be relative here.”
He says DBP has worked on this issue, including spending about $800,000 to create a “quiet zone” so trains no longer have to blast their horns at downtown rail crossings. Krueger says before that happened, businesses found they couldn’t conduct work by phone because of the noise.
Tax increment financing paid for the quiet zone.
It’s going to take local dollars to pay for any remedy, says Krueger’s counterpart, Lisa Harmon of the Downtown Billings Association. She warned conference attendees not to look to the federal or state government to pay for a rail traffic mitigation project, like what Reno did. Instead she suggested cheaper alternatives: changes in traffic signals to reroute traffic to existing rail underpasses, better signage to alert motorists earlier when there’s rail traffic through downtown, and easing traffic congestion through the creation of a downtown shuttle or advocating walking and bicycling.
Just before midnight, Billings Police Officer Marc Snider witnessed a young woman drive the wrong way through downtown and then roll over the median in a bank parking lot. He stopped her on the wrong side of the street by the Billings Gazette. Fellow officer Brandon Ihde drove over to assist.
“I’m officer Ihde with the Billings Police," he says. "Officer Snider called me over because I’m part of the STEP team. So I do drug interdiction, DUI, traffic and things like that.”
He leads the woman to the sidewalk and conducts a field sobriety test, which Snider records with the video camera in Ihde’s car. “Okay, Ashley. Bring your hands back here. I’m going to place you under arrest for DUI. We’re going to go down to the DUI center and we’re going to do some more testing down there. Okay? It’s not going to be quite so cold down there.”
The DUI center is at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility. It has three testing rooms – one each for the Billings Police Department, Montana Highway Patrol, and the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s office. Red lines are on the floor for the sobriety test and an Intoxilyzer is in the corner for breath tests. A video camera records activities in the room.
Ihde reads the Montana implied consent advisory to Ashley, then asks: "Will you take a breath test?" He then walks her through the process. “What I need you to do is put your lips on this small section here. You need to take a long, deep breath and blow just like you’re blowing up a balloon. Okay? But don’t grab onto the hose because I don’t want you to break that off. Okay. Long deep breath. Blow really hard. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going."
She blows a .104. Under Montana law, .08 or greater is considered to be under the influence. Ashley then refused to answer any questions or make a statement, so the interview was stopped and officers walk her to the detention facility.
In addition to a half-dozen traffic stops, this was just one of four DUI calls for Ihde that night. And he uses the same procedure for each suspect.
Prosecutors asked the 2011 Montana Legislature to close a loophole they said allowed repeat offenders to not be held accountable. The Montana attorney general’s office testified that nearly 3,000 suspected drunk drivers refused a breath test in 2010, a record. Those who refused to take breath test that year was greater than the number of people convicted of a first offense DUI. Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 42 and it was signed into law last April.
Law enforcement officials across the state are now using the telephonic search warrants for suspects with a prior refusal, past conviction, or pending offense, and Officer Ihde calls one in. “Judge Knisely. This is Officer Ihde, badge number 316, with the Billings Police Department. I am requesting your assistance with a telephonic search warrant for a DUI investigation for a second or subsequent offense. My testimony is being recorded and Officer Firebaugh, badge number 398, is my witness. Will you swear me in please?"
Ihde uses the affidavit in support of a telephonic search warrant to tell the judge the reasons and circumstances for seeking permission to draw blood from the suspect. Permission is granted and the warrant is served. Four officers from the detention center join the two Billings Police officers. The woman is placed into a restraining chair, then a member of the facility’s nursing staff draws 2 vials of blood for testing. The process is videotaped; all of the documentation is submitted to the District Court.
It was about 1:30 Saturday morning when Officer Ihde called Judge Mary Jane Knisely for telephonic search warrant request. Later in her chambers, Knisely says the phone calls are part of the job. “I answer the phone pretty easily now," she says, "and I am kind of a light sleeper.” She adds that she makes sure she's taking notes "so I am awake and I know what I am doing. And I am hitting the four corners of the search warrant.”
The judges take turns answering these phone calls. District Judge Russ Fagg also takes the calls in stride, even if they come in the middle of the night. “I think it is our responsibility to take care of the cases in our district," he says, adding that although he has turned down warrant requests in the past, " I have not turned down any telephonic search warrants for a DUI blood test yet." He explains: "Under the U.S. constitution, they have to show probable cause for the request. So I look at what is their probable cause to do that. And do they have probable cause to think, to believe the person is under the influence of alcohol. And if I ever determine that I don’t think they have that then I would certainly turn it down. But I haven’t done it so far.”
The judges and prosecutors say it's too early to tell if the word is getting out about the telephonic search warrants seeking a blood test for DUI arrests, or if it has meant more defendants entering a guilty plea rather than have their case heard in court.
(Helena, MT – Yellowstone Public Radio) – The US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) told Montana officials the agency expects to release a report soon on last summer’s crude oil pipeline spill into the Yellowstone River.
The update was delivered to the February meeting of the Montana Oil Pipeline Safety Review Council.
PHMSA is wrapping up its Corrective Action Order against ExxonMobil, owner of the Silvertip Pipeline. The CAO essentially tells the company to make the pipeline safe and get rid of systemic problems.
On July 1, 2011, that pipeline broke and spilled 1,500 barrels of crude into the Yellowstone River near Laurel in South Central Montana.
Chris Hoidal is regional director for PHMSA in Colorado. He told the Montana Oil Pipeline Safety Review Council that PHMSA is waiting for the test results of the broken piece of pipeline removed from the Yellowstone River.
“It’s our intention to close the order as soon as the metallurgical testing is done and we complete the accident investigation,” he says.
The forensics on the broken section of pipe could shed light on what specifically caused the break. Investigators suspect scouring caused by the flooding Yellowstone River contributed to the pipeline break.
Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer created the Montana Oil Pipeline Safety Review Council following the oil spill to investigate pipelines that cross waterways and make recommendations on how to prevent future spills.
The panel is chaired by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality Director (DEQ) Richard Opper. He says the council plans to release its draft report by the end of April or early May.
Some members of the public would like absolutes that there will be no future oil pipeline spills in Montana in the future. “I would have say I am one of those people who would like an absolute,” Opper says. “There are no absolutes. As long as we’re going to use oil in this country there are going to be spills occasionally. There are going to be accidents. There are also going to be things that we can do minimize the risk to make sure that the product that does flow - underneath our landscape and across our rivers – we can take steps to make sure that they’re safe.”
ExxonMobil recently made upgrades to shore up its Silvertip line. The company also spent an estimated $115 million to clean up parts of the Yellowstone River, the shoreline, and adjacent lands contaminated with crude following the pipeline break.
The Montana DEQ, meanwhile, is taking public comment until Feb. 21, 2012 on a proposed legal settlement with ExxonMobil Pipeline Company over the oil spill. The Administrative Order of Consent covers monitoring, remediation, as well as penalties and the cost of the cleanup.
Snow's on the way in much of the Northeast and Midwest. And those areas don't get as much as Montana, that has lots of folks kind of excited in a largely dry, warm winter.
To get you in the mood for the white stuff, here's a photo of Transportation Nation's Jackie Yamanaka's F-150. And no, she did NOT transform it into an "electric" car (see lower right of photo).
Drivers in the northern tier states who have sub-zero winters install engine block heaters to keep the fluids flowing. The overnight ambient air temperature earlier this week was -11 F.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – The car-centric West poses a challenge for college students who arrive on campus without a car. Public transportation can be limited, and far flung classrooms, and snow and ice storms can be a challenge for students who live on campus -- but attend classes miles away. Transportation is also a challenge for "land locked" campuses that can't add more parking spaces and are looking for ways to encourage the campus community to become more "green."
Now three Montana campuses with affiliated Colleges of Technology, located miles away, have transit options for its students. Montana State University-Billings became the last campus to get a shuttle for its students beginning with the current spring semester.
Jeannie McIsaac-Tracy is the director of Student Life and Auxiliary Services at MSU-Billings. She says 90 students live in the residency halls but take the majority of their classes at the COT, seven miles away.
“We have no housing at the COT,” she says. McIsaac-Tracy says the new shuttle service tells students, “yes you can live with us, be part of the evening campus life, and not have that additional expense of driving back and forth.”
Student Johnny Maetzold is one of those students. “I’ve been driving out there,” he says. “But now that the bus is here and money is a little tight, I think I might ride it a few times.”
McIsaac-Tracy says the free shuttle is an important sustainability issue for the city of Billings, Montana’s largest community. “If you watch in the morning, you see car after car after car leaving this lot (at MSU-Billings) and driving out and back.” She says in addition to reducing traffic congestion, the shuttle could reduce the use of gasoline and automobile emissions. “So we’re excited about the environmental issue of running the shuttle.”
The MSU-Billings 18-seat bus is currently a pilot project. Campus officials say they will evaluate usage and work on a funding source at the end of the semester.
The University of Montana-Missoula has been fine-tuning its student transit since 1999. What initially sparked the issue was the need for more parking, but the lack of land on or adjacent to campus.
That’s when the student government created and pays for the Associated Students of UM Office of Transportation. The campus now runs six buses a day between its COT and two Park and Ride lots.
Director Nancy Wilson says the office estimates it will carry about 450,000 riders this year on its system. “About 40% of our ridership walks to the bus stop and the other 60% drives to the bus stop,” she says.
In addition to free bus service, UM also has 50 bicycles that students can borrow for free for up to two days -- or students can rent a bicycle, helmet, light, and lock for $30/semester. Wilson says that “works really well for international students.”
Wilson says UM continues to look into whether to offer its students car share. “We’ve looked into it several times,” she says. “We’re not sure if our community is large enough to support a car share at this point.”
Boise State University in Idaho has a car share program for its students.
Wilson says UM also works with the city bus service and a community based transportation organization, Missoula in Motion, to help students get around the area by bicycle or city transit.
Montana Tech in Butte also is working with the Butte-Silverbow Bus service to transport students for free from its uptown campus and residency halls to its COT. That service started in January 2010.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – Montana’s Congressional delegation is critical of President Barack Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. (See a map of proposed pipeline here and here.)
Senator Max Baucus, D-MT, pledged to continue to fight for approval of the pipeline that would cross Montana from the oil tar sand fields in Alberta, Canada to the U-S Gulf Coast. The pipeline was also planned to pick up crude from the Bakken oil fields of Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota.
“There is absolutely no reason we cannot start putting Montanans to work on the Keystone XL pipeline right away,” says Montana’s senior U-S Senator. “We’ve done three years of analysis and worked hard on strict environmental considerations.” Baucus says it’s time to move forward on jobs and energy security, “and I’ll keep fighting tooth and nail until that happens.”
Baucus, a Democrat, was part of the majority that mandated the Obama Administration issue a decision on a permit for Keystone XL pipeline project by the February 21, 2012 deadline.
“I am disappointed by the President’s decision,” says U-S Senator Jon Tester, D-MT. “Just as I have supported Montana’s renewable energy jobs, I have long supported responsibly building this pipeline with the highest safety standards and with respect for private property rights.”
Sandy Barnick is a Montana landowner who would be impacted by the proposed pipeline route. She’s also a member of the Northern Plains Pipeline Landowners Group, an opponent.
“I’m glad to hear the President stood with landowners who knew the impacts on our state from this pipeline have not been adequately analyzed,” Barnick said in a written statement. “The President stood on the side of the people, as opposed to foreign corporations, today. I hope this decision sets a precedent that the impacts from a project must be determined before approval.
TransCanada wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline.
A written statement from the White House said the announcement was “not a judgment on the merits of the pipeline, but the arbitrary nature of a deadline that prevented the State Department from gathering information necessary to approve the project and protect the American people.”
Some Republican members of Congress are also critical of the President’s decision.
Montana’s lone U-S Representative Denny Rehberg in a written statement says the decision is “shameful.” He says the President put his re-election ahead of jobs for Americans and , “shows just how much of this Administration and its allies have bought into the radical, anti-job agenda of environmental extremists like the League of Conservation Voters.”
U-S Senator Mike Enzi, R-WY, is also critical of the President’s decision, saying creating jobs and getting energy from “our friends should have been an easy decision.”
“In Wyoming, the energy industry has created high-paying jobs that thousands of people rely on,” Enzi says in a written statement. “Putting more than 20,000 people to work across the country is a good thing. Canada is ready to help us lessen our reliance on places like the Middle East and Venezuela for our energy needs. Flipping the XL switch to ‘on’ should have been a no-brainer.”
Last November, the Obama administration put a decision whether to issue a permit on hold, in part to study a new proposed route that would have skirted an environmentally sensitive area in Nebraska.
Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman, a Republican, called lawmakers into special session in November over the issue. Lawmakers passed bills to change the pipeline’s original route.
Senator Max Baucus’ office says the White House “officially rejected the necessary permit today, but this decision does not preclude the company from reapplying for a permit as soon as this week.”
(Billings, MT – YPR) – A Montana school launched a walk/bike to school initiative -- even though it's January.
Nicole Chakos is the acting president of the Highland Elementary Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA). She says she was inspired to go ahead with the the winter launch after watching three boys ride their bikes to school one day in December.
“It was a beautiful day,” Chakos says. “But a beautiful day in Montana is, I think it was 28 (degrees F) in the morning, but the roads were clear. And it really hit me and I thought, ‘You know, the kids, they can do this.’”
The Montana Safe Routes to School coordinated urges students to continue walking and biking to school through the winter. Taylor Lonsdale has issued a friendly challenge to Montana schools, saying Alaska and New Hampshire have active programs. “So I’ve tried to frame it as ‘We’re Montanans. We’re not going to let people in New Hampshire do this if we can’t do it.’”
“We live in Montana,” Lonsdale says. “Winter weather is a reality for all of us but that doesn’t mean that our lives stop. That doesn’t mean we stop being outside and active.” He says many Montana families with children participate in winter activities - snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, or downhill skiing - so what’s different about walking to school, he asks.
As an incentive at Highland Elementary, the PTSA installed Boltage. It uses what it calls a Zap machine to track mileage when a student gets to school in any way other than being driven.
The Zap is a solar-powered, wi-fi internet enabled machine that reads a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag that’s issued to participating students. Highland Elementary is the first Montana school to have a Boltage program.
As participating students accumulate days walked/biked, they receive small rewards -- in this case colored rubber wrist bands stamped “Highland Boltage.” The PTSA also plans to hand out stickers, temporary tattoos, and other prizes as incentives to encourage kids to walk or bike to school.
Highland Parent Nancy Dimich says for her son, walking and biking is more than that. She says what motivates her son and his friends is the camaraderie.
“When they get together, and there’s three of them, they take off happy as clams because they’re free,” Dimich says. “I think there’s a sense of liberty.” She says when she joins them to walk to school the boys talk non-stop. She thinks the walking and talking gets them ready for the school day. “I truly believe they’re coming to class much more prepared for their studies,” she says. “They really have their blood circulating. The oxygen is going to their brains. They’re ready.”
The PTSA Nicole Chakos says some parents, however, never will consider letting their children walk or bike from home to school, even when it's not winter. Concerns about safely crossing busy streets at rush hour, the distance to travel, and the cold and snow during the winter present barriers. For those parents, she suggests creating a drop-off zone a few blocks from the school where the kids can gather and then walk as a larger group.
“Maybe they (parents) can get them across the busy road and let them walk as a group so they start to get the experience,” Chakos says. “I really believe as those parents get more and more comfortable, especially as the kids get a little bit older, with them leaving directly from home (and walking to school).”
Chakos says even walking those couple of blocks would count under Highland’s Boltage program.
The Boltage Zap unit, software, RFID tags, support, and other materials cost nearly $7,000 for the next 3 years. The school received a grant from the Montana Safe Routes To School (SRTS) to pay the cost.
The state’s SRTS program is currently funded out of the 2005 federal transportation funding bill known as “Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act” or SAFETEA-LU.
Montana SRTS's Taylor Lonsdale says the state receives $1 million a year in dedicated funding under the current legislation. He says it's his understanding that the current U.S. Senate proposal would move to a model where states would have the discretion to direct funding for a number of bicycle and pedestrian specific programs, including SRTS.
Lonsdale says it is hard for him to see a dedicated stream of funding possibly end. He says he sees the benefits of SRTS to Montana “from infrastructure improvement in small communities that otherwise couldn’t afford it to the education and encouragement programs like Boltage at Highland” that are getting kids excited about walking and biking to school.
And its more than just about schools. It's about livable communities, says Billings School District 2 trustee and community health advocate Kathy Aragon. “So we have an obligation to our community to make it more safe for kids to walk or bike,” she says. “We can return to the good old days where we didn’t have the congestion caused by parents driving their kids to school.” Aragon adds encouraging kids to walk and bike to school is good for the environment because it reduces automobile emissions and it reduces wear and tear on streets because cars aren't driving back and forth in front of schools to drop off/pick up children. And: children and their parents can get in some exercise.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – Montana joined a handful of states in the crackdown on drunk driving in 2011. Federal and state officials have launched a drinking and driving awareness campaign during the holiday season.
Impaired drivers pulled over by law enforcement in several states better be prepared to give blood – even if they refuse to submit to a breath test. Several states, including Montana, Florida, Texas, and Illinois, now have laws that allow law enforcement officials to seek a telephonic search warrant from a judge to draw the blood of a person suspected of driving under the influence.
Montana passed its law – Senate Bill 42 - during the 2011 legislative session.
“The problem with repeat DUI driver in this state is they become skilled in their craft," says Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Rod Souza. "And they quickly realize that the way to get out of a DUI is to withhold evidence. And so they refuse [the] sobriety test and they refuse that ever important breath test. And so they deprive the investigator and the prosecution of important evidence. But that is no more.”
Souza credits the 2011 Montana Legislature as the most successful session ever when it comes to combating DUI.
He adds it comes from the public being fed up. Montana has had one of the highest alcohol-related fatality rates in the nation per vehicle mile traveled.
Souza says, “Montanans are recognizing that DUI is not just a traffic ticket. It’s not just an addiction. It’s a crime. And it’s a crime that negatively impacts our entire community.”
“I want my son back. And I can’t get him back,” Rebecca Sturdevant told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in February. Sturdevant, who spoke on behalf of the group Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, lost her son, Montana Highway Patrol (MHP) Trooper Evan Schneider, while he was on duty in August 2008.
Another MHP Trooper Mike Haynes was killed in a head-on collision--also while on duty--in March 2009. Haynes was struck by a drunk driver headed the wrong way on US Highway 93.
The Yellowstone County DUI Task force brought Haynes’ patrol car to the courthouse on December 15, 2011 as a reminder of the consequences of drinking and driving.
“We should always look toward those two men and look at that car as a sobering reminder that DUI truly affects all of us,” says Souza. “Anyone. Anytime. Anywhere. And that’s really the problem with DUI it can tragically change anyone’s life n the blink of an eye.”
Another key bill from the 2011 Montana Legislature was the creation of what is known as the 24/7 program. House Bill 106 is based on a program developed in South Dakota. In Montana, judges can sentence individuals convicted of a second or subsequent DUI to submit to a breath test twice a day, every day of the sentence.
These were just two of the successful laws passed by Montana lawmakers. There were some opponents. A few legislators worried about stepping on the rights of individuals and the impact on businesses, including comments from state Representative Alan Hale (R-Basin) on the House Floor in March.
“Mr. Chairman. I have to rise in opposition to this along with all the other DUI laws," Hale says. "These DUI laws are not doing our small businesses in our state any good. At all. They are destroying them. They are destroying a way of life that has been in Montana for years and years. These taverns and bars in these smaller communities connect people together. They’re the center of the community. And I’ll guarantee you there’s only two ways to get there. Either you hitchhike or you drive. And I promise you they’re not going to hitchhike. Thank you.”
Hale and his wife own the Silver Saddle Bar and Café in Basin, MT, a small community south of Helena just off of I-15.
Nine of Montana’s 56 counties have launched 24/7 in October. Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito supports the program because the state’s largest county also had the state’s most DUI-related crashes in 2009.
Twito thinks both the telephonic search warrants to draw blood and 24/7 will help reverse that statistic.
“We have the evidence against you. We have the program in place to try to curb your dangerous behavior,” Twito says. “We’re going to move forward and hopefully take you off the roadway.”
State Attorney General Steve Bullock says its still too early to tell if both of those new laws will ultimately tackle Montana’s DUI problem. “This isn’t something that will change our whole environment and change attitudes. It went into effect October 1st. The world won’t change by November 1st. But what this will do is make sure those offenders will be treated as individuals. We’re dealing with them as individuals to try to address the problems that they have.”
Bullock says, however, law enforcement officials tell his office they are starting to see progress.
“We know in Billings last year 40% of the DUI suspects pulled over refused to take a breath test. We know statewide in 2010, roughly 3000 people refused,” Bullock says. He says that seems to be changing with the new laws. “So far this year, Montana is down 13.6% in the number of alcohol-related crashes and about 16% in alcohol-related fatalities compared to last year.” Bullock says those numbers can still change since the year is not yet over.
Besides legislation, Montana has also launched a public service campaign as part of a multi-pronged approach to address driving under the influence.
This includes a television ad titled “Sober Friend” that features a riderless horse waking up to a bar to pick up a man.
In Montana, a person can’t be charged with DUI if they are on a horse, bicycle or in a wheelchair. (MCA 61-8-401 references the definition of vehicle in MCA 61-1-101 (90)(a) as “a device in, upon, or by which any person or property may be transported or drawn upon a public highway, except devices moved by animal power or used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks.”
(Billings, MT-YPR) The oil boom in Canada’s Tar Sands field and an oil refinery upgrade brought megaloads--huge shipments of drilling equipment-- across Western roads and interstate highways in 2011.
Opponents argue this equipment supports a dirty tar sands oil industry, will destroy public infrastructure, and disrupt scenic and wild landscapes. Proponents counter the megaloads will boost the economy. They add that until consumers no longer drive vehicles or use petroleum-based products, it's better to buy oil from friendly countries like Canada than from the Middle East.
Imperial Oil and ExxonMobil are seeking permission to move several hundred loads of large processing equipment from the Port of Lewiston in Idaho, through Idaho and neighboring Washington and Montana, to its final destination – the Kearl oil sands in Alberta, Canada.
Earlier this month, the Idaho Transportation Department temporarily suspended shipments of Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil refinery equipment following a collision with a vehicle. There were no injuries.
Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) Director Timothy Reardon recently gave an update on the Kearl transport project to the interim Revenue and Transportation Legislative Committee (RTC).
Conservation groups and others are fighting movement of the oil sands processing equipment. Opponents argue MDT should have conducted an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) rather than an Environmental Assessment (EA) in issuing permits to the Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil loads. In Montana, a state district judge granted a preliminary injunction halting the loads earlier this year. District Judge Ray Dayton later modified his order when Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil proposed smaller load sizes, and set a January 6, 2012 hearing date for arguments on a permanent injunction sought by opponents. Reardon, who has been MDT’s lead attorney before being promoted to director in August, expects the judge will instead request a trial for a full hearing on the matter.
Originally, the loads were up to 30 feet tall and weighed more than 500,000 pounds. Because of the size and weight, the companies were seeking to move the loads at night on two-lane roads. Now the companies have basically cut those loads in half and have been traveling on the interstate.
“They’ve moved 80 so far on the interstate and they’ve done so without incident (in Montana),” Reardon told lawmakers during December’s RTC hearing. “One of the distinctions about using the interstate route that has become apparent is with half-size loads on the interstate, most vehicles can travel 55-60 MPH.”
He adds traveling on the interstate means the passing lane is free for other vehicles to get around the loads.
Reardon told lawmakers the companies have submitted an application to move 300 oversize loads via I-90 and I-15.
A legislator had asked MDT if the state agency had adequately assessed state bridges to make sure they could handle megaloads. Reardon says during the state’s EA of the Kearl Transportation Project, the agency’s engineers “used their best judgment based on the information at hand to determine that the bridges on the proposed route were sufficient.”
Reardon told lawmakers that after the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in 2007, Montana began an aggressive program to inspect all of its bridges. “They’ve all been found to be structurally safe as far as this route (the Kearl transportation project) is concerned. Our engineers tell me they do not believe there is a risk.”
“They get paid to make decisions about building bridges and telling us if they think they are going to fail when they get a heavy load on it,” Reardon says. “And so far, they tell me those bridges are sound.”
Reardon says at this point, however, none of the Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil loads have moved any of its loads on any of those bridges.
Another megaload shipment that received attention in Montana in 2011 was a proposal by ConocoPhillips to move four coke drum shipments from the Port of Lewiston in Idaho to the company’s oil refinery in Billings.
Protesters met the ConocoPhillips megaloads in February as crews traveled down a Missoula street. It was the only Montana community to hold a protest rally.
In Helena, a few onlookers watched. At the final destination in Billings, crews were greeted with coffee and donuts in April.
Because of the size, the loads were split into two. The final load arrived at ConocoPhillips refinery in August. The final shipment was delayed by several weeks because of spring flooding across portions of Central and south central Montana.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – The Port of Northern Montana was awarded a nearly $10 million Department of Transportation TIGER III grant.
“This is exactly the kind of smart investment we need to get folks back to work and push our economy forward,” US Senator Max Baucus announced in a press release. “The Intermodal Hub is a perfect example of local ingenuity and public-private partnerships working together to create jobs.”
The grant will help pay for linking freight rail transportation between the state of Montana and all ports served by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway in the West and Great Lakes. This includes the Washington ports of Seattle, Tacoma, Longview and Vancouver, and in Minnesota, the Port of Duluth.
The press release says the completion of the Intermodal Hub project in Shelby will allow Montana businesses to transport goods by rail instead of heavy truck. The project is also expected to allow the trucking industry to move freight quicker and more efficiently.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – The Montana Department of Transportation uses a “green” anti-corrosion inhibitor in its liquid chemical road de-icer.
The state agency recently awarded a one-year contract to Rivertop Renewables of Missoula, MT to provide about 110,000 gallons of corn-sugar to mix with its salt brine de-icer.
“Essentially MDT will put sugar and salt on our roads to keep winter drivers safe and our state’s economy flowing, while protecting infrastructure investments and our environment,” says Rivertop President Jere Kolstad in a press release.
Dr. Dave Wilkening is the company’s manager of corrosion sciences. He says he’s been working to develop an inhibitor that’s bio-based and bio-degradable. Wilkening says he grew up in the Midwest, “and have vivid memories of cars with holes in the floor boards and fester rusted off” from either road salt or liquid de-icers sprayed on the roads during the winter.
He says the alternative – phospate-based corrosion inhibitors – aren’t environmentally friendly and are being phased out at the request of state transportation departments.
Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and the Canadian province British Columbia joined together several years ago to develop specifications for the chemicals used to combat snow and ice on roadways. The group is known as the Pacific Northwest Snowfighters Association. According to its website, it was formed to evaluate and establish specifications “for products used in winter maintenance that emphasize safety, environmental preservation, infrastructure protection, cost-effectiveness and performance.”
MDT winter maintenance specialist Justun Juelfs is a member of the committee. He says bio-inhibitors are a fairly new product in the market. He says Montana has been producing a liquid salt brine de-icer for the past 5 years, “So we asked the industry to develop a product that meets or exceeds our corrosion protection standard.”
Juelfs says using a “green” corrosion inhibitor is not new to MDT. “Essentially the product that we’re using this year, that was sourced through Rivertop, is essentially the same active ingredient that we’ve been using for years in the past.”
Juelfs says while Rivertop Renewables is a Montana-based company, that fact did not lead to any special preference. He says every bidder has to abide by the same rules. “Rivertop was the successful bidder based on low bid,” he says.
Juelfs says the company was awarded a one-year contract for its anti-corrosion inhibitor and that was done purposely.
“We have more and more players at the table each year,” he says. “So multiple year contracts would discourage future competition. And until salt brine corrosion inhibitor becomes more readily available and there’s additional vendors willing to supply that, we just stick with an annual contract because at this point it is in the state’s best interest to do so.”
Juelfs says Montana doesn’t require vendors for an anti-corrosion additive to be bio-based, but he says the state has stringent environmental requirements. For example, he says the state tests for heavy metals, Ph, and the biological oxygen demands, “so we know we’re not impacting the adjacent streams and rivers to our highways.”
“I think the positive effect is we’re able to provide an adequate level of service and provide safety to the traveling public,” Juelfs says. “That’s certainly on the forefront and has to be balanced with environmental stewardship, as well.”
Rivertop’s Dave Wilkening says the industry is responding to the needs of the pacific northwest states. He hopes it spread. “The trend in the industry,” he says, “is to do when possible ‘green chemistry.’ There’s a lot of momentum behind that.”
Wilkening says the East coast and Midwestern states that use a lot of solid salt are beginning to adopt liquid de-icers, but still haven’t fully embraced anti-corrosion inhibitors.
“But there’s a growing understanding that corrosion is a large expense,” Wilkening says. “For example, a bridge deck costs multi-millions of dollars. So if you can reduce that by reducing the corrosive effects of de-icing salts you’ve saved the taxpayers millions of dollars in replacement fees just by increasing the service life of bridge decks, equipment, guard rails, signage.”
Wilkening says while that might be hard to quantify because of the long-term effect, there’s a growing awareness that you need to consider those things in the overall costs of a road maintenance program.