(Billings, MT – YPR) – Flooding in central Montana is delaying the transport of refinery equipment bound for Billings while a lawsuit by a Missoula-based group is holding up another megaload bound for the oil tar sand fields in Alberta, Canada.
Megaloads are giant rigs hauling, in most cases, equipment for oil refineries. They've been described as heavier than the Statue of Liberty, nearly as long as a football field, wider than the roads that they’re actually traveling on, and three stories high.
Montana Department of Transportation Director Jim Lynch updated legislators on the Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee on the progress of the litigation over the Imperial Oil-ExxonMobil Kearle Module Transport Plan through the state.
“The matter has been briefed fully by both sides,” he says. “Now we’re waiting for the court’s decision.”
Before Lynch spoke, Missoula-based All Against the Haul issued a press release saying the MDOT’s environmental analysis was inadequate. The group says its report still doubt Montana’s roads and bridges can handle the size and weight of these loads.
Imperial seeks to bring over 200 loads at night over 300 miles of Montana road.
When questioned about the group’s report by Missoula legislators, Lynch says, “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know if I can answer that because I don’t know what report. I don’t know what engineer,” he says. “So I can’t say if I’ve seen it or not seen it. I’ve seen a lot of material that we received through the environmental process.”
Lynch told the interim legislative committee many of the questions lawmakers were asking about are in the current documents used to generate the permit to haul the megaloads through Montana.
All Against the Haul Campaign Coordinator Zack Porter says a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement should be conducted. He adds federal highway officials are now concerned about these loads and have contacted state officials.
“There was a memo just sent recently by Michael Onder, Team Leader of the Truck Size and Weight division of the federal Highway Administration in Washington, D-C,” he says. “The memo was sent to Director Lynch and MDOT regarding the concerns brought up by the representatives and senators here today who asked the questions just a moment ago.”
Porter says their study found shortcomings in MDOT’s ability to study the impact these loads will have on bridges.
Motor Carriers of Montana Executive Vice President Barry “Spook” Stang says the only community protesting these loads is Missoula. He says that’s unfortunate.
“These people (All Against the Haul) are here to obstruct it,” he says. “They’ve already held up this project a year and a half. By the end of this summer it will be two years. All they’re doing is adding cost to your fuel prices every time you buy fuel.”
But State Representative Sue Malek of Missoula wonders about the recent flooding from heavy rains that caused several rivers and streams to jump their banks. The damage washed out some roads and bridges and compromised some road beds. Communities are bracing for additional flooding as record snowpack begins melting in the mountains.
Lynch says MDOT continues to monitor and analyze roads. Earlier in his presentation, Lynch told lawmakers to date Montana has spent about $2 million on repairs and is anticipating spending tens of millions of dollars just to fix state infrastructure damaged by flooding.
Lynch adds large loads are moving through Montana.
One that is delayed, however, is transport of the last set of Coker Drum equipment bound for the ConocoPhillips Refinery in Billings.
ConcoPhillips Spokesman Rich Johnson in Houston says the loads are parked near Townsend.
“Due to all the rain and flooding conditions that have happened in the region over the last several weeks the shipments have been parked in the area since the end of May,” he says. “We’re not able to resume travel until the road conditions improve.”
He says MDOT will notify the company when travel can resume. The state approved route is through areas where flooding has caused hills to slide, roads to buckle, and sinkholes.
Johnson says the company would like the equipment to arrive at its refinery, but that it won’t be installed until the next maintenance cycle scheduled next winter.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – Amtrak is restoring passenger rail service on two of three disrupted routes in the Western U.S. beginning June 15, 2011.
Flooding in North Dakota caused the temporary suspension of service on the Empire Builder Route between St. Paul, MN and Spokane, WA.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari says Amtrak service for the complete route will resume now that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company has restored the track between Devils Lake and Rugby, ND and between Sandpoint, ID and Libby, MT.
The Empire Builder line originates in Chicago and travels through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
Magliari says Amtrak’s California Zephyr will also resume June 15, 2011. But he says alternate transportation will be provided to serve Omaha, NE. Temporary levees were built over BNSF tracks to help protect the cities of Omaha and Bellevue, NE.
In the meantime other natural disasters are delaying other Amtrak routes.
Service is temporarily suspended between Newton, KS and Albuquerque, NM because of a wildfire burning near BNSF racks in New Mexico. Also on the Southwest Chief route, daily service between Chicago and Los Angeles is using a detour route through Texas and Oklahoma. Passengers on the route who are headed to destinations in western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, and northeastern New Mexico will be transported by motorcoach or local commuter trains, as available.
Passengers who are seeking train status updates can call 800-USA-RAIL or visit Amtrak.com.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – A national report says by 2015 most aging baby boomers will live where public transportation is poor or non-existent. This is a problem for those seniors who no longer drive. The report says that will trap them in their homes.
The report by Transportation for America is called: “Aging in Place, Stuck without Options: Fixing the Mobility Crisis Threatening the Baby Boom Generation.”
The report found Atlanta, Riverside-San Bernadino, and Houston to be the large metro areas with the poorest transit options for senior citizens. (For more on Atlanta's transportation system, check out the TN documentary "Back of the Bus: Race, Mass Transit and Inequality."
During a national telephone press conference call, Reconnecting America President and CEO John Robert Smith says the lack of public transportation is most notable in the suburbs and small cities and towns.
“Often times the transit connections from your front door to the grocery stores simply don’t exist,” he says.
One of the small metro areas studied in the report is Billings, Montana. The south central Montana community is the largest in the state and a regional hub for medical, financial and retail services.
When compared to other communities nationwide, Billings ranks fairly high for senior access to public transit.
Ron Wenger is the manager for the city of Billings Met Transit. He says making sure seniors have access to public transportation is a priority.
“For Billings specifically the study shows that less than 4% of the seniors in the city have a poor transit option,” Wenger says. He says that’s excellent when compared to other cities of comparable size in the survey.
Wenger adds the city’s para-transit system will pick up seniors, including those who are wheelchair bound, at their front door and deliver them to the grocery store, to medical appointments, or anywhere else.
Wenger notes, however, for those who live outside the city limits the report projects by 2015 87-percent of seniors will have poor to no-access to public transportation.
That is a concern for Riverstone Health, a community health center. Spokeswoman Barbara Schneeman says it’s not practical to ask seniors from nearby farm and ranch communities to move into the city.
“There’s a lot of wonderful, wonderful history and generations that are out in our rural farming communities,” she says. “That’s awfully hard to leave behind.”
That also isn’t being promoted by transportation advocacy groups.
John Robert Smith says there is no single solution. He calls for community based solutions, but he notes funding is needed in the Transportation Reauthorization bill being considered in Congress. Montana Senator Max Baucus is a lead negotiator. He chairs the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure, the Senate panel that writes the reauthorization bill.
Normally such assessments are used to determine whether a state might qualify for a presidential disaster declaration.
Governor Brian Schweitzer determined the flooding so far warranted seeking the declaration.
In his request Schweitzer said, “This incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments.”
The Democrat included 37 of Montana’s 56 counties and 5 of its American Indian Reservations in the request to President Barack Obama.
One of the counties in that request is Musselshell in central Montana.
County officials estimate nearly 30 roads and up to 7 bridges were damaged by last weeks flooding. This includes washed out roads, sink holes, and at least two bridges that were knocked off their footings.
There could be additional damage but high water is prevent officials from getting a first hand look.
If the state’s request for a presidential disaster declaration is granted federal money could become available for roads, bridges and other public infrastructure.
This flooding was due to heavy rain.
DES officials say the worst is yet to come with anticipated spring run-off of mountain snowpack bringing even more water to swollen rivers.
(Billings, MT-YPR) Amtrak has temporarily shut down its Empire Builder passenger rail service between St. Paul, MN and Spokane, WA because of flooding in Minot, North Dakota.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said that, as of Wednesday afternoon, the basement of the Amtrak station was flooded and there was up to two feet of water around the building.
Magliari says no passengers were on the Empire Builder when service was halted yesterday. Passengers who are holding tickets on that route through Sunday can either ask for a full refund or hold on to their tickets and re-book for up to a year. “Later this week, we’ll be in a position to better understand how the water is receding so we can resume service next week,” he says.
Amtrak relies on Burlington Northern-Santa Fe rail lines for the Empire Builder route. Magliari says crews are inspecting rail beds and bridges in North Dakota.
BNSF is also continuing to inspect its lines in Montana. Flooding last week closed a rail line from Billings, MT to the coal-rich Powder River Basin area on the Montana-Wyoming border.
BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said that line was shut down for two days, but rail traffic is up and running on the company’s main lines.
Melonas said high water is still affecting BNSF traffic on a secondary line from south of Laurel, MT to Greybull, WY, and that maintenance and engineering crews are working on numerous lines. He said in the Billings area alone, over 200 rail cars filled with rock was placed along the tracks to stabilize the rail bed.
According to Melonas, this has been one of the worst winter and spring seasons on record for the railway. This past winter, crews had to deal with snow drifts as high as 20 feet in near Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana. He also said that crews have also been dealing with slides from constant rain in Washington state; in Montana and North Dakota flooding.
(Billings, Montana -- Yellowstone Public Radio) Senator Max Baucus is calling for a quick federal response after touring some of Montana’s flood-ravaged roads, bridges and other infrastructure this week.
During a conference call late last week with county and tribal officials, Baucus was told some county roads were “liquefied” by the flood waters. The officials added they don’t have the money for repairs. Afterwards, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure wrote a letter to US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to request federal funds to help pay for repairs.
“A lot of America is stressed by Mother Nature,” Baucus says. “So there may be an opportunity there in a disaster appropriations bill to include some special Montana needs. It might include some county roads and bridges.”
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials are now in Montana assessing the damage from May’s flooding.
Officials are warning Montanans and those downstream that heavy mountain snowpack has just begun melting -- which will further strain swollen rivers, streams and saturated ground.
(Billings-Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) – High gas prices are projected to have little impact on tourism to Montana and Wyoming this summer.
Christine Oschell is the assistant director at the Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana.
She says the American public has a higher threshold for what they are willing to pay for gasoline and they don’t want to give up their vacations. (What are YOU giving up? Check out our interactive map here.)
“What we’re anticipating is that people might not drive around as much when they get here,” she says. “But we’re definitely not expecting people not to travel and not do their vacations this year due to gas.”
She says instead the trend is for visitors to change their spending habits.
“That continued trend of camping more, driving around the state less, staying in one spot longer,” she says.
Yellowstone National Park officials also doubt higher gas prices will dampen visitation.
2010 set a new record year for park visits. About 3.6 million people came to Yellowstone. Most came during the peak months of mid-June through mid-August.
Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash says visitation didn’t drop much the last time gas topped $4/gallon.
“The price hike in 2008 and subsequent economic downturn had some impact on our visitation, but we really don’t see significant impacts to Yellowstone,” he says.
Nash says the bigger issue right now is what can visitors do once they arrive. Heavy snow has delayed getting Yellowstone ready for the summer tourist season.
“We’re 3 to 4 weeks behind normal and normal is a pretty short summer season for Yellowstone,” he says.
Crews are trying to keep the roads and boardwalks clear of late Spring snow. And snow or mud is keeping the park from opening backcountry hiking trails.
Park officials want to get all park roads open in time for the Memorial Day weekend, the traditional summer tourist kick-off. Avalanches caused earlier this month caused temporary closures of Yellowstone's East entrance near Cody, Wyoming.
Deep, heavy snow is slowing the plows. This includes for the scenic Beartooth Highway that leads to Yellowstone’s Northeast entrance.
(Billings-Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) – State agencies in Montana that depend on vehicles are feeling the pinch of higher fuel prices. But agency officials say, for now, they are able to cover the higher costs even with their austere budgets.
Colonel Mike Tooley is chief of the Montana Highway Patrol. He says each day there are about 200 troopers out on the state’s roads and highways everyday. They are responsible for the bulk of the agency’s travel expenses at nearly 6 million miles a year.
“That’s where our work is done,” he says. “We need to be out on the highways to be visible and be available for the public, Tooley adds. “So if we have to make adjustments in other areas we’ll do that before we cut the amount of driving that the troopers do.”
Montana’s fuel prices lag behind the national average of $3.93/gallon. According to Gasbuddy.com, the average price of a gallon of gas in Montana Monday was $3.77. While that’s nearly 80-cent/gallon higher than a year ago it’s still below 2008 when gasoline topped $4/gallon.
Tooley says the MHP took a number of steps. This includes: replacing its fleet of Ford Crown Victorias with Chevrolets orDodges. He says those vehicles are smaller and have new technology to deliver better fuel economy.
He hopes gas prices decline because the agency currently is down 20 troopers. Recruitment is taking place for those positions now.
The 2011 Montana Legislature also authorized MHP to hire 8 additional officers beginning July 1, 2011. Governor Brian Schweitzer signed the state’s main budget bill into law last week.
Tooley hopes to fill all of those vacancies and hopes fuel prices go down so he can do that.
“If this turns out that this is the new normal of above $3.50/gallon for gasoline then that’s when we have to take a look and prioritize on what we’re going to do without,” Tooley says.
Another agency that depends on employees on the road is the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Its wardens are out patrolling on land and water.
(Helena, MT-Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) – A bill that would close a loophole in Montana law that allows suspected drunken drivers avoid taking a breath/blood test is one step closer to becoming law.
The Montana House of Representatives gave final approval to Senate Bill 42 after making a few changes. If the Montana Senate agrees, the final stop for the bill is Governor Brian Schweitzer’s desk.
The bill is part of a package of bills aimed at addressing DUI in Montana.
(Helena, MT -- Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) A Montana short-line railroad has gone from laying off workers to hiring them back and planning for further expansion as Chinese demand for coal pushes some American freight lines to capacity.
Jim Lewis is director of sales and marketing for Montana Rail Link, a regional railroad that's seeing a boost in traffic. Lewis says rail use is up across the nation. Neighboring Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway’s northern route, known as the Hi-Line, is at capacity.
“There’s only so much track,” Lewis says. “We’re kind of a safety valve for BNSF to run traffic across our railroad so they can handle all of the traffic that they have.”
He just returned from a coal conference in Florida. He says mine executives talked about the growing coal export market, particularly to China.
“A couple of the CEO’s of large mining companies described it as we’re entering into a coal super-cycle,” Lewis says. “And it was stated in the conference that Asia represents 90 percent of a 4 billion ton global demand for coal.”
It’s expected coal mines in Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin will be called upon to help meet that demand.
Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway hauls the coal from those mines where it’s turned over to Montana Rail Link at Laurel, Montana. The Missoula, Montana-based railroad owns track between Laurel and Sandpoint, ID and has track rights to Spokane, WA.
Lewis says besides the global demand for commodities, there’s also an increase in demand domestically.
He adds the recent rise in fuel prices and the decline in commercial truck companies has shippers looking at rail as an affordable option.
(Helena, MT – Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) – Early Wednesday morning, the big rigs hauling equipment to a Billings, Montana oil refinery crossed through the second major city on its route.
Megaloads have been described as "heavier than the Statue of Liberty, nearly as long as a football field, wider than the roads that they’re actually traveling on, and three stories high." Their use has sparked some controversy over whether they sufficiently compensate the state for the wear and tear they cause on roadways.
Unlike the trip through Missoula which drew a crowd of several hundred and resulted in the arrest of one protester, only a handful of people watched the 2 coke drum shipments cross through a major intersection in Helena, Montana’s capital city. The big rigs were able to shoot a gap between the traffic lights. The signals did not have to be dismantled or pivoted out of the way. Utility crews in bucket trucks held up the utility lines so the rigs could pass.
“That was cool,” says Jim Whitehead. The Helena resident waited nearly four hours for the big rigs to shoot the gap between traffic lights at this intersection.
He says curiosity brought him out on this rainy and windy night to watch the two megaloads bound for the ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings, Montana.
A heavy haul truck pulled the load from the front while another pushes from the back. The company’s fact sheet says the rigs are 226 feet long, 29 feet wide, 28 feet high, and weigh approximately 300 tons.
“That’s just amazing,” says Whitehead. “I had no idea they could move things that big on a street.”
About 30 people are traveling with the big rigs. This includes the transport company, Emmert International, traffic control vehicles, Montana Highway Patrol officers, numerous utility trucks, and others.
This is the first of two loads. The remaining shipments are awaiting transport to the ConocoPhillips Refinery in Billings at the Port of Lewiston, Idaho.
This is the first of a series of megaloads to be transported through Montana. ExxonMobil has loads also in Lewiston, ID bound for the oil tar sand fields in Alberta, Canada.
Protesters are trying to stop these shipments.
(Helena, MT – Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) – ConocoPhillips successfully transported its two huge megaloads of refinery equipment through the city of Missoula early this morning.
Hundreds of protesters and onlookers flanked the 15-mile route through a major city street.
Each load is 26 feet high and 29 feet wide. The loads are so big crews had to move traffic signals and utility lines out of the way. As described in an earlier TN story, each load is “heavier than the Statue of Liberty, nearly as long as a football field, wider than the roads that they’re actually traveling on, and three stories high.”
Rich Johnson is a ConocoPhillips spokesman who flew to Missoula from Houston to accompany the loads. He says this is the first time he’s worked on a project this big that’s been the focus of intense media and public scrutiny.
“We had a lot of people out watching,” he says. “I mean there were the protesters. But there were many more people out watching to see this pretty amazing, unique site of these huge coke drums being transported through their city.”
The loads are not without controversy. A few protesters did try to block the loads. But they were removed by police. One person was arrested. Last month, the Montana Legislature was set to consider a bill that would have required separating permitting for megaloads, but it was tabled.
The route this morning through Missoula totaled about 15 miles. Johnson says the transport went smoothly.
“It went very well,” Johnson says. “We were able to safely transport our shipment from Lolo through the city of Missoula and ended up at our designated stopping point well before our required stopping time of 6 am.”
It took about an hour and a half to travel the 15-mile route. The load is destined for the company’s refinery in Billings.
The total miles to be traveled over the road is about 700. The loads were manufactured overseas, arrived via ocean freighter after traveling some 5,300 miles and then were sent by river barge to Lewiston, Idaho
When these two coke drums arrive at the ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings, the crews will return to Idaho for the two remaining vessels, also bound for the Billings refinery. The equipment is to be installed next year.
Montana is awaiting another set of megaloads. That one is for an ExxonMobil project destined for the oil tar sand fields of Alberta, Canada.
(Helena, MT-Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) – Montana Legislators want to catch DUI offenders early and hit them hard.
DUI is one of the major issues before the 2011 Montana Legislature this session. State Representative Kris Hansen, R-Havre, is sponsoring a bill that would make a third DUI conviction a felony. She says the idea is to force people into detox earlier.
"People who get a 3rd DUI obviously have an alcohol problem," Hansen says. "If you let them go to 4th you're taking a risk that they've committed several more DUI offenses which they did not get caught. They are putting people at risk."
Currently, if someone commits a 4th of subsequent DUI offense they may be sentenced to the Warm Springs Addictions Treatment and Change program, or WATCh.
Under House Bill 299, offenders instead would be allowed to stay in their home communities, but they would have to submit to mandatory supervision and alcohol testing and monitoring.
Hansen says she was told not to introduce this bill because it’s too expensive.
Under House Bill 299, offenders would be supervised by the Montana Department of Corrections Probation and Parole offices. The initial cost estimate, says Hansen, was $4.5 million dollars. That has since been cut in half, but Hansen still disputes that figure.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ken Peterson, R-Billings, voted against the bill in his committee, but he’s now in favor of the measure. He says it’s a primary responsibility to get chronically impaired drivers off the road.
“If we can help them also that’s fine,” says Peterson. “This is the best bill I’ve seen come along this term that’s going to slap them alongside the head and get their attention. They know that when they get a 3rd DUI it’s a felony.”
But it’s not tough enough for state Representative Alan Hale, R-Basin. He says that’s why he’s against the measure.
“I would say we need to maybe look in a different direction,” he says. “I have a suggestion that maybe we should just build a gallows down here and if they get a 3rd offense we just take ‘em down and put the gallows to work and maybe that would cure the problem.”
The Montana House gave preliminary approval to the bill.
(Helena, MT-Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) – Winter weather has delayed the megaloads being trucked from the Port of Lewiston, Idaho to a refinery in Billings, Montana.
Megaloads are giant trucks that have been described as “heavier than the Statue of Liberty, nearly as long as a football field, wider than the roads that they’re actually traveling on, and three stories high.”
A so-called megaload of refinery equipment bound for a ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings is just east of the Idaho-Montana border, poised to make a circuitous 500-odd mile trip from the Lolo National Forest, and winding up to Roy, before making its way back down to a refinery near Billings.
Since about mid-February, one load has been waiting near Lolo Hot Springs near the ID-MT border. The plan is to move all of the loads together to lessen disruptions.
The delay, however, is giving people time to get a first hand look at the loads.
Idaho residents Heather Rebal and Jason Meyer stopped at the pullout to get a first-hand look at the coke drum shipment.
“I think it’s cool,” says Rebal. “I’d like to see it going down the road.”
This load is half of a 300-ton coke drum. It’s about three-stories high and 226-feet long. Delays are limited to 15 minutes for traffic. Meyer says that wouldn’t bother him.
“It would be slow, but you gotta do what you gotta do,” he says. “How else are they going to get it there?”
Montana Department of Transportation Director Jim Lynch says he’s impressed with how ConocoPhillips and its transport contractor Emmert International are handling the shipments.
Lynch says moving such large loads are not new for Montana.
“We permit a lot of megaloads,” he says. “This is not the first megaload that has been permitted or that the Montana public has seen. I don’t want to make the Montana public think this is something that has never happened in Montana. It happens on a regular basis.”
But some Montana residents would like to change that. Earlier this month one legislator introduced a bill that would have required special-use permits for megaloads. It's not expected, though, that the legislature will take action on it.
Lynch says once the entire load is consolidated the shipment will be escorted by the Montana Highway Patrol and representatives of his agency to make sure the transport is taking place according to the conditions of the permit.
(Helena-Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) About 3.5 million rural residents lost access to scheduled intercity bus, ferry, and rail transportation between 2005 and 2010. That’s according to a new report from the U-S Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).
The report says North Dakota had the lowest percentage of rural residents with access to intercity transportation.
BTS reported significant changes for the state since 2005, including reductions in Greyhound Lines bus services and the suspension of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited New Orleans-Jackson route.
(Helena, Montana -- Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) - It's described as "heavier than the Statue of Liberty, nearly as long as a football field, wider than the roads that they’re actually traveling on, and three stories high."
A so-called megaload of refinery equipment bound for a ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings is just east of the Idaho-Montana border, poised to make a circuitous 500-odd mile trip from the Lolo National Forest, and winding up to Roy, before making its way back down to a refinery near Billings.
These first of four coke drum shipments were trucked in from the Port in Lewiston, Idaho along the scenic Lochsa River corridor and along the boundaries of wilderness areas and national forest land. When the second shipment arrives, they will travel together to the south central Montana refinery.
Some Montana residents are concerned these loads will spawn an industrial megaload corridor that will cause excessive wear and tear on roads and bridges.
So Montana lawmakers are considering House Bill 507, which would require industrial equipment on Montana highways to obtain a new, special-use permit.
Zack Porter is the campaign coordinator for the group “All Against the Haul.” He says Montana lacks a current state regulatory statute to deal with megaloads. "We do not use the word megaloads lightly," he says. "Today’s highway infrastructure, much less those bridges that were built in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s in this state , wasn't built to handle this type of equipment.”
But Jim Lynch, the director of the Montana Department of Transportation, says the process already exists to evaluate and analyze the state’s roads, the hauling equipment, how that load will impact the roadways and make sure it won’t violate the federal bridge laws.
Lynch adds there’s also an environmental assessment conducted under the guidelines of the Montana Environmental Policy Act, as well as a safety plan, and an emergency plan.
“We permit a lot of megaloads,” Lynch says. “This is not the first megaload that has ever been permitted. It happens on a regular basis in Montana.”
Lynch says ConocoPhillips has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the state of Montana that the company will pay for any damage now or in the future even if MDOT has made an error. He adds the company has also posted a $10 million bond. Lynch says that’s to ensure Montanans don’t pay for any possible damage.
Lynch says there are laws in Montana that govern the actions state agencies like his take.
“And I can assure the public,” he says, “that the Montana Department of Transportation did just that follow the existing laws. We can’t make up the laws as we go. We have to enforce the laws of the state of Montana equally among all the users of the highway system.”
During the hearing, Lynch did not speak either for or against HB 507.
MDOT also recently granted final approval to Exxon Mobil Corporation to move large loads of refinery equipment bound for Canada’s oil tar sand fields. Under the newly approved plan, 207 loads of Imperial Oil equipment will move from the Port of Lewiston in Idaho, through Montana and north to the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada.
Opponents of HB 507 said the bill impedes commerce by delaying the issuing of permits.
Dave Galt represents the Montana Petroleum Association. He’s also a former Montana DOT director.
“The purpose of the Interstate system, the strategic highway system, the national network of highway systems, and the federal funding formulas that come to Montana are premised upon the fact that we need a system to move goods across the country,” he says.
And other opponents of the bill say the definition of a megaload in the bill would delay the transport of a number of goods, including wind turbines, large cranes used in construction, and other mining and drilling equipment bound for Montana work sites.
But supporters of the bill say megaloads could harm their small outfitting and guiding businesses by driving away tourists or causing an inconvenience. And they say this bill will ensure safety for other highway users.
The House Transportation did not immediately vote on HB 507.
(Helena, MT – Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) – Montana lawmakers are considering a pair of bills to deal with the rising numbers of suspected drunk drivers refusing breath tests.
Montana has the highest number of drunk driving cases per capita in the nation.
The bills seek to give law enforcement authorities easier access to a judge to issue a search warrant to get a breath or blood test if they receive a refusal.
The Montana Department of Justice reports that last year 2,859 drivers refused to submit to breath or blood tests after having been stopped by law enforcement on suspicion of DUI.
“This number represents a trend of more than 2,800 refusals annually during 2008, 2009, and 2010,” says Assistant Attorney General Ali Bovingdon.
She says 2010 had the highest number of refusals recorded over a three year period.
(Helena, MT – Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) – Montana lawmakers are considering several bills this week to crack down on drunk driving. Recently there have been high profile deaths, including two cases of drunk drivers killing Montana Highway Patrol officers.
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito says one of the hardest cases he had to prosecute involved DUI. Chad Shipman was convicted of hitting road engineer Richard Dean Roebling who was working on Main Street in Billings. Shipman drove away from the scene.
(Helena, MT – Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) – Montana lawmakers are considering a bill that would revise the impaired driving law to add that any amount of a dangerous drug is a violation.
But supporters of medical marijuana worry House Bill 33 would criminalize the nearly 27,000 people who hold medical marijuana cards.
Colonel Mike Tooley, head of the Montana Highway Patrol, says the effects of drugs on driving wasn’t tracked until 2009 but the results are sobering, even in Montana. “In 2010, there were 857 drugged driving cases that measured 18 different drugs,” Tooley says.
In a notable case, Tooley says the man who hit and killed Montana Highway Patrolman Michael Haynes in 2009 had a blood alcohol content of point-one-eight and had high levels of THC in his blood. THC is the main, active chemical in marijuana.
Advocates for medical marijuana say House Bill 33 unfairly targets them because the bill says, quote “driving with any amount of a dangerous drug or its metabolite in a person’s body is a violation.”
Rose Habib is a chemist and cannabis scientist from Missoula. “The presence of metabolites is only indicitive of past use or exposure not of impairment,” she says. Habib says THC can remain in the body for up to 30 days.
Opponents of the bill worry they’ll be targeted by law enforcement. Not so, say the bill’s supporters who say the burden still lies with law enforcement to show there’s probable cause, such as erratic driving.
The House Judiciary Committee did not immediately vote on the bill.
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(Helena, MT-Jackie Yamanaka, Yellowstone Public Radio) – Montana legislators are considering a bill that would allow teenagers charged with vehicular homicide while driving under the influence to be prosecuted as an adult.
House Bill 18 is sponsored by Republican Representative Janna Taylor of Dayton.
“In Montana,” she says, “we need to name the crime correctly because in Montana we take DUI seriously.”
In two recent cases involving then-17-year olds, both were prosecuted as negligent homicide rather than vehicular homicide. Prosecutors say there is a difference in sentencing. Negligent homicide carries a 20 year maximum prison sentence; vehicular homicide is 30 years.
But prosecutors say the real difference is court-ordered and supervised treatment that carries over when the offender becomes an adult if the youth is prosecuted as an adult.
Mark Murphy represents the Montana County Attorneys Association.
“In these cases, the most serious that we deal with,” he says, “there is a dead victim in this case. Although we want to reform the youth, we also want to protect the community.”
The House Judiciary Committee did not immediately vote on House Bill 18.
Wednesday and Thursday (Jan 29-30, 2011) the Joint House and Senate Judiciary Committees will hold hearings on nearly 20 bills that address the issue of driving under the influence.
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