Montana Locality: No Studies That Will Slow Coal Train

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A coal train traveling near Billings, MT. Picture by Jackie Yamanaka.

(Billings, MT-YPR) – The largest city and county in Montana decided to deal with the impact of possible increased coal train traffic locally rather than join the efforts of other communities in calling for a regional environmental study on the issue. Yellowstone County officials object to any study that is critical of coal.

"We need to look at this as an opportunity," says Yellowstone County Commission Chairman John Ostlund. "We have more coal than anybody in the world, countries around the world want to burn it. We need the jobs. We need the tax base. These are the greatest opportunities and problems to have that we could ever hope to have."

The Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council (YVCC), an affiliate of the environmental group Northern Plains Resource Council, recently asked Billings and Yellowstone County officials to ask to be included in an  Environmental Impact Statement scoping hearing for the Cherry Point Port Terminal in Whatcom County, Washington.

The Helena City Commission recently agreed to write a letter to the U-S Army Corps of Engineers to look into increased rail traffic on Helena, the capital city, as it conducts an environmental review on the Cherry Point Port terminal.

YVCC’s Svein Newman asked Billings' Policy Coordinating Committee (PCC), a city-county transportation planning board, to join Helena.

“The issue faced by Billings is similar to the issue faced by Bozeman, Helena, Spokane, and more (communities),” he says. “And instead of over a dozen individual studies to arrive at similar conclusions it makes sense to focus on one (study), especially when it is not funded by county taxpayers.”

Asian customers are interested in buying more U-S coal, but the lack of port capacity is restricting shipments. If ports are expanded, or new ports built, coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming is the most direct and closest source via rail.

Opponents of coal port terminal expansion cite concern about the environmental effects of burning coal, the human health effects of coal dust blowing from rail cars, and the impact of increased coal trains on motor vehicle traffic. YVCC projects the number of coal trains passing through Billings could triple from 2009 figures to 40 trains per day because of the growing demand for U-S coal in Asia.

Billings officials, however, are not interested in conducting another rail traffic study. There have been 8 such studies, the most recent in 2004. Instead, they want staff to look at the recommendations from past studies, for example, whether signs to alert motorists when there’s a train blocking the road keep traffic flowing.

“Pardon me if I sound kinda blunt, but I think having a sign that says ‘train on tracks’ when you can actually see the train on tracks is kinda redundant,” says Greg Krueger, Development Director for the Downtown Billings Partnership. “It just says, ‘there’s a train on the tracks’ and prepared to be frustrated.”

PCC Chairman and Yellowstone County Commission Chairman John Ostlund laughed and asked if that should be on the sign.

“I think so,” replied Krueger. “But I do believe if we have signal upgrades that could interface with reader boards, that I’ve seen in other cities, that says ‘southbound traffic/train on tracks/turn left now.’ What I am saying is a train route that in essence takes you around the tracks.”
Other options that could be considered include:  adding left turn lights on the main thoroughfares through Downtown Billings when there’s a train on the tracks and improving one downtown underpass so it could accommodate emergency vehicles.

Yellowstone County Commissioner Jim Reno calls these options “low-hanging fruit.” While being stuck at a rail crossing is an inconvenience, he says, it should be welcomed by the community. Reno says increased rail traffic points to a growing economy.

“We embrace the fact there’s additional landings at the airport. We embrace when we see more (sugar) beet cars. We embrace when we see unit trains of wheat and grain,” he says. “We should come at it (increased coal train traffic) from a positive view point as opposed to my impression that it came early on as an anti-carbon, anti-environmental. We should get past that and look at it as an opportunity that frankly some regions of this country would welcome the opportunity to have economic growth.”

Recently, the Yellowstone County Commission unanimously adopted a resolution formally declaring support for coal and coal based power and the expansion of ports on the West Coast to accommodate increased shipments Powder River Coal from Montana and Wyoming to customers in Asia.

The PCC did not formally take action on how to address traffic concerns through Billings from increased coal train traffic. But it indirectly told a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) to review the recommendations of past rail studies and determine: project prioritization based on projected train traffic, costs, funding sources, responsible party, and a time frame. The TAC recommendations would then be considered at a late date by the PCC.