(Billings, Montana -- Yellowstone Public Radio) Growth in Montana’s oil and gas, agriculture, and coal sectors has spurred Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway to open a new economic development office in Billings, Montana.
"We’ve reached a critical mass of activity, of growth here that really requires us to open an office in the region.” says Vann Cunningham, assistant vice president of economic development for BNSF in Fort Worth, TX.
Much of that growth is due to the Bakken oil boom in eastern Montana and in western North Dakota’s Williston Basin.
“So it makes a lot of sense for us, with this kind of growth, to put somebody on the ground,” he says. “The closer you are to the project the better the project goes.”
Billings, located in central Montana, is the state’s largest city and is already a regional hub for health care, financial services, and retail. Billings is also the Montana headquarters for a number of energy companies. It is relatively close to the Bakken, as well as the coal development in the Powder River Basin near the Montana-Wyoming border. This includes the proposed Otter Creek Coal project, which would require construction of a new rail line. BNSF is one of the partners in the proposed Tongue River Railroad.
Cunningham says BNSF has already completed 18 projects in the state. This includes a multimodal hub at the port of Northern Montana near Shelby near the Montana-Canada border. He says the railroad is now working with Billings, Kalispell, Great Falls, and the Fort Peck Indian Reservation on other projects.
“From our standpoint, things are growing and that’s exciting. Jobs are being created,” he says. Cunningham came to Billings for the ribbon cutting for the new BNSF economic development office.
Cunningham says for Montana, rail is the link to the global economy. Shippers use rail to send grain, coal, or crude to ports for export overseas, including Asia.
BNSF transported 340,000 carloads of Montana’s wheat, barley, lumber, oil and coal last year, he says.
“Montana has always been, for a long time, an export state,” says John Rogers, chief business development officer for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “Obviously you can’t export without transportation and BNSF is huge in terms of transportation.”
Rogers says Montana’s exports total nearly $2.5 billion annually.
The railroad also handles nearly two million carloads in the state each year and employs more than 2,200 people in Montana. BNSF is hiring 250 employees to fill existing or new positions in Montana.
In June, BNSF opened a new economic development office in Bismarck.
Cunningham says the railroad enables more than 15 million tons of North Dakota’s wheat, soybeans, and other ag products to reach world markets each year. He adds more than 50 percent of the state’s Bakken crude oil also moves on the BNSF rail network.
Since 2010, BNSF has located 75 new or expanded facilities in North Dakota. The company employs more than 1,500 people. It plans to hire 400 additional workers this year to fill existing or new positions in ND.
Before the opening of the two new BNSF economic development offices, BNSF already announced about $220 million in capacity enhancement projects in ND; $115 million in MT.