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Transportation Nation

Booming Natural Resource and Agriculture Industries Spur Rail Investment in Montana

Monday, October 28, 2013

(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.

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Transportation Nation

Possible Increased Coal Train Traffic Raises Community Concern

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A typical coal train traveling through Montana.

(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.

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Transportation Nation

Riding Along on the DUI Run With Billings Police

Monday, March 05, 2012

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.

(photo by Jackie Yamanaka)

“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.”

(photo by Jackie Yamanaka)

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.

(photo by Jackie Yamanaka)

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.

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Transportation Nation

Montana To Parents, Kids: We Know It's Winter -- But You Can Still Walk & Bike To School

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

(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.’”

Zap machine at Highland Elementary School

“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.

A child at Highland with a Boltage RFID tag on her backpack

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.

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Transportation Nation

Megaloads Travel Through Montana City

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A megaload waits on a snowy road (photo by Jackie Yamanaka)

(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.

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You can read more TN coverage about this issue here and here.

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Montana, Leading the Nation on DUIs, Poised For Crackdown

Thursday, January 06, 2011

(Helena, MT -- Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) -UPDATED Montana lawmakers are poised to crackdown on drunk drivers during the 2011 Montana Legislative session.

Per mile and per capita, Montana leads the nation in fatalities where alcohol is a contributing factor," says Kevin O'Brien, spokesman for the Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock.

O'Brien says that the number of convictions for felony DUI's in Montana rose 39% from 2009 to 2010.  A person will receive the felony DUI designation for any 4th or subsequent DUI conviction. He notes there's been a moderate decrease in the number of first time convictions but the number of repeat offenders keeps going up.

As of today, lawmakers have introduced or requested over 30 bills (or bill drafts) to deal with impaired drivers. This includes making it a crime to refuse a breathalyzer test when stopped on suspicion of driving under the influence (DUI). State Attorney General Steve Bullock has said some 3,000 suspected drunk drivers refused the breath test last year, and he supports efforts to strengthen DUI laws.

According to an op-ed in the Billings Gazette, "DUI refusal is the bane of prosecutors. A refusal case is one of the most difficult types of criminal cases to try because the key piece of evidence — the suspects' blood alcohol level — is missing...According to Bullock, more people have refused the breath test than have been convicted of first-offense DUI this year."

It is not unusual for the courts to deal with offenders who have multiple DUI convictions on their records. For example, a man with nine DUI convictions was sentenced last August to 13 months with the Montana Department of Corrections. The judge said he would have meted out a longer sentence if one was allowed under Montana law.

The Montana Legislature convened Monday and is scheduled to adjourn at the end of April.

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A Plan for Reliable Transportation For Poor Montanans

Monday, December 06, 2010

(Billings, MT – Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) – The provider of public health services for Montana’s largest community is moving most of its services to one campus. A lack of reliable transportation has hindered access to some programs spread across Billings.

Riverstone Health oversees the community health center that provides primary care to the uninsured or underserved in Billings. Many clients are low-income. The organization, formerly known as the Yellowstone City-County Health Department, is currently undergoing an expansion and renovation of its campus.

John Felton, Riverstone’s vice president of operations says the maternal health program -- Women, Infants, and Children -- will be moved to the community health center as part of renovation. “For one of us to get in the car and go a couple of miles is not a big deal if we have reliable transportation,” he says.

But for many of the center’s patients who would benefit from WIC, it is a burden to go to another location for services, he says, especially because it’s not along a bus route.

“When this project is complete, rather than getting in a car or finding a ride people will literally walk upstairs and they’ll be at the WIC program,” Felton says. He notes that Riverstone Health is located on Billings’ Southside in part because the U.S. Census has identified this area as lower-income.

“And one of the hallmarks of being low income,” he says, “is not having access to reliable transportation. So we’re on a bus line here and many of our patients walk.”

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Transportation Nation

TN Moving Stories: Transpo Contractors Investigated Over Minority Hires, DC Metro Shakeup Coming, and Monetizing Old Car Batteries

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Arrive early and bring your patience: It's the biggest travel day of the year!

And it's snowing in the cities of Transportation Nation partners Minnesota Public Radio (Minneapolis) and Yellowstone Public Radio (Billings.) Could start snowing soon at WDET (Detroit).

In other news...

Did two of New York's largest construction companies finesse minority hiring requirements in order to win contracts? Federal authorities are investigating Schiavone and the U.S. unit of Swedish construction company Skanska AB. Skanska is working on a number of transit projects, including the Brooklyn Bridge rehabilitation, the 2nd Avenue Subway, and the PATH terminal at the World Trade Center site. (Wall Street Journal, New York Times, New York Daily News)

DC Metro shakeup in the works? The governors of Maryland and Virginia and the incoming D.C. mayor directed their top transportation officials to come up with a detailed plan for carrying out broad changes in how Metro is run. (Washington Post)

After your Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt dies, what will happen to its lithium-ion battery?  Automakers are trying to find ways to monetize old batteries. (Wired)

Riders at NYC's Union Square subway station might wonder: does this train go to Hogwarts? (New York Daily News).

The number of bicyclists in Portland continues to rise--8% increase over 2009. 190% increase (yes, 190%) since 2000. (KPTV)

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Transportation Nation

How to Cross a 7-Lane Highway: Go Under, Not Over

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Billings cyclists participate in a ribbon cutting to christen a new bike/pedestrian tunnel that connects bike trails under Montana's busiest highway (Jackie Yamanaka)

(Billings - Jackie Yamanaka, Yellowstone Public Radio)  Overcast skies and a few snowflakes didn't deter a group of cyclists, runners, government officials and others from christening a newly completed tunnel under Montana's busiest highway.

Darlene Tussing is the Alternative Modes Coordinator for the City of Billings. "It's seven lanes of traffic," she says. "And it's not someplace you'd like to take your family on a bike ride."

Until now.

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Transportation Nation

Proposed Billings Bypass Divides Montanans

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

(Billings, Montana - Jackie Yamanaka, Yellowstone Public Radio) I-90 in Billings, Montana is part of the Camino-Real International Trade Corridor-- a well-traveled NAFTA route that truckers use to move goods through Mexico, the United States, and Canada.

But: things aren't exactly seamless in Billings, because truckers have to leave the interstate and be rerouted through city traffic.

That traffic has turned Billings' Main Street into the most congested, heavily-traveled highway in the state of Montana. Transportation planners had proposed building a bypass to re-route semi traffic away from Main Street, but the lack of a reauthorized federal transportation bill has meant no money for the project.

Stefan Streeter is the administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation office in Billings. He says despite the lack of full funding, part of the project is funded. And planners have an eye toward a full truck bypass.

“When you put all of this together there's a lot of long range plans between the city, county and the state to alleviate what is by far the most congested route in the state of MT and also provide for emergency access," he said.  "At 5:00 if you need an ambulance on Main Street, lord help you, because I don't think it can get up there.”

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Transportation Nation

Billings to Ban Distracted Driving

Thursday, September 23, 2010

(Jackie Yamanaka, Yellowstone Public Radio) Montana has no law banning cell phone use or texting while driving--but that will soon change in the state's largest city. An ordinance going into effect next month says if a Billings City police officer sees a driver holding up a cell phone to their ear, or texting while driving, that driver can be immediately pulled over and given a written warning or a citation.

For a first offense, the fine is $110. Billings Police Chief Rich St. John says he’s hoping the law will deter drivers from using a cell phone while driving. “If we don’t write a ticket for this, I’m okay with that," he says, "as long as we get compliance. Because ultimately the goal is to get people’s heads out of the cell phone or Blackberry and out on the road where it belongs.”

People who use a hands-free device are exempt from this ordinance, as are emergency responders, such as police and firefighters. The ban takes effect October 31, 2010.

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Montreal: City of the Future?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation) I was in Montreal recently, on a family vacation. Upon arriving, I was immediately overwhelmed -- by the number of bikers. Everyone, it seemed, was riding -- families with children, young people, people in fancy suits, kids in school uniforms, hot rods in spandex. Cyclists on fancy machines with aerodynamics helmets, and hordes on the sturdy, gray-and-black Bixi bike share bikes. The two-way protected bike lanes which fill the town were full to the brim, especially around the evening commute, which is when I arrived.

Now, Montreal's outside life is a seasonal thing. The Bixi bikes are stored inside for the harsh winters, and traffic regs for bikes go out of effect November 16-March 31. But for the summers at least, Montreal seems to have achieved what many U.S. cities are after -- a division of the streets that discourages the use of personal automobiles, where cyclists are relatively safe and motorists aren't confused by looming, lawbreaking cyclists.

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Transportation Nation

Billings Gets New Pedestrian and Bike Network -- Officials Hope to Build Social Connections, As Well

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Photo: Jackie Yamanaka

(Billings, MT -- Jackie Yamanaka) Billings, Montana has had some pretty scary streets for bikes and pedestrians, but officials there are hoping to change that. The Billings Chamber of Commerce is launching a new bike and pedestrian trail system, and held a ribbon-cutting this week at what will be a bike/pedestrian trail under Montana's busiest highway. The City of Billings Alternate Transportation Modes Coordinator, Darlene Tussing, says safety is important for cyclists, but it's not the only reason to build trails.

"When we're in a car with our windshield in front of us and our metal around us we fell like we're hunkered in in this little -- when you're out on the trail and on your bicycle there's no barriers. It really does make a very strong social networking opportunity for the community."

Audio here.



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Transportation Nation

Bike Share Gets to Big Sky Country

Friday, May 14, 2010

That's right: go to Billings, Montana and the bikes, helmets and locks are free to pedal around downtown during the day.  It's a project run not by B-Cycle, or another company launching big city bike shares in the U.S., but the Downtown Billings Alliance.  Joe Stout of the Alliance says they hope locals will "think bike" for the short trips that people would usually do in their car at lunchtime.  "You don't have to be Lance Armstrong to ride your bike to the grocery store and get a backpack full of groceries," he says.  Hear more from Yellowstone Public Radio's Jackie Yamanaka.

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