Wednesday, March 20, 2013
(Helena, MT – YPR) – The Montana Senate Natural Resources Committee plans to vote Friday on a bill that would exempt oversize loads from having to undergo a review under the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA).
House Bill 513’s sponsor is Representative Bill McChesney (D-Miles City). He says the measure makes it crystal clear that the Montana Legislature “never intended for routine permits for oversize loads be forced to undergo the same scrutiny for environmental impacts that a new highway, a new coal mine or an oil refinery would be subjected to.”
The issue reached a flashpoint about two years ago when protesters sued to block several megaloads. At that time ImperialOil/ExxonMobil wanted to move oversize loads of equipment bound for the Oil Tar Sand fields in Alberta, Canada. Protesters also tried to stop oversize loads of coker drums traveling through Missoula to Billings.
“Prior to this particular incident in Missoula, the Montana Department of Transportation permitting process was always clearly designed and implemented to ensure the public notice and public safety were given substantial consideration without needless requirements or restrictions on the permitees,” says McChesney.
In order to haul an oversize load through Montana, companies need to obtain a 32-J permit. The current application contains an environmental checklist.
Opponents of HB 513 say because these megaloads could pose a threat to public safety, the environment, and cultural resources, a MEPA review may be appropriate. They add these projects should be subject to the MEPA process that expand the public’s right to know and the right of the public to participate in government decisions on such matters.
“If HB 513 passes, these monstrous, three-story, 200-foot long and 500,000-600,000 pound, made in Korea (loads) will be exempt from review for public safety, local highway infrastructure, cultural resources, the economy, and the environment,” says Montana Sierra Club's Claudia Narcisco.
Not true, says McChesney, a retired MDT employee who worked with oversize loads and the 32-J permits. He says before such permits are issued, MDT reviews the route, load size, and that public input is always welcome. He argues a MEPA review for the 32-J permit is redundant. “There’s no justifiable reason for this superfluous barrier to the commerce and the accompanying perception that Montana is a difficult place to do business.”
HB 513 was sent to the Montana Senate on a 72-26 vote.
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
(Helena, MT-YPR) – There's no relief in sight to remedy the long waits for prospective semi truck drivers to get their Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).
Montana legislators, for now, are not funding a request by the Montana Motor Vehicle Department to retain four full-time equivalent (FTE) CDL examiners. The inaction comes despite acknowledgement by members of the Montana House Appropriations Committee that there’s up to a 60 day waiting period to take the CDL exam.
“I find it unacceptable that we got a 60-day waiting list to put people to work so they can start paying their taxes,” says House Appropriations Chairman Duane Ankney (R-Colstrip). He adds this is not the fault of the MVD.
The reason for the shortage of semi-drivers is multifaceted, but it is exacerbated by the boom in the Bakken oil field in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota. That has led to more people seeking training to drive the big rigs and the need for a CDL.
Ankney asks if the local community colleges can offer that training and testing.
MVD Administrator Brenda Nordlund says current state law prohibit third-party testing. “That happens in other states, but there are some risks,” she says. “Fraud, particularly when there is a large demand and scarcity of resource.”
Currently MVD has five people, some part-time, temporarily spread across Montana to conduct CDL exams. The money for those positions runs out June 30, 2013.
Initially the House Appropriations Committee tried to fund those positions with money from a consumer protection account. A legal opinion advised them against that action.
The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee passed the state’s main budget bill without funding the temporary CDL positions. The bill can still be amended on the House Floor or in the state Senate.
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
(Helena, MT – YPR) – Montana lawmakers gave preliminary approval to a bill that would increase the distance motorists have to give a school bus when children are getting on and off.
House Bill 155 would amend current Montana law to increase the distance a motor vehicle has to stop from 15 to 30 feet when a school bus puts on its red flashing light.
Representative David “Doc” Moore (R-Missoula) is the bill’s sponsor.
The freshman lawmaker brought toy school buses and handed them out to many state representatives in the 100-member house to try to persuade his colleagues to vote for his first bill.
Moore said the bill is about safety. “In 2011, nationwide there were 100 fatalities or injuries of school children in school safety zones,” he said. “Sixteen of these fatalities happened when children were getting on or off their buses.”
But not everyone was on board. Representative Jerry O’Neil (R-Columbia Falls) questioned whether the bill was necessary. He asked: where are the statistics that changing Montana law will save a child’s life?
“I think we’re better off to leave it the way it is. It isn’t causing any problems the way it is. I think we’re better off to just vote ‘no’ on this,” he said.
But HB 155 passed the Montana House on an 83-17 vote. It faces a final vote in the House. If it passes, it will go to the Montana Senate for consideration.
Monday, October 29, 2012
To find out just how the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has transformed political races in America, Frontline teamed up with Marketplace to look at the role of campaign finance in the race for one hotly contested Montana Senate seat. Kai Ryssdal, host of Marketplace, explains what he discovered while working on the documentary.
Thursday, September 06, 2012
(Billings, MT – YPR) – Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) officials say the railroad is keeping pace with the rapid growth caused by the Bakken Formation, the largest oil field in the lower 48 states.
The lack of pipeline capacity has led oil producers to turn to rail and semi trucks to bring crude from fields in western North Dakota and eastern Montana to market.
BNSF recently announced it has increased capacity to haul one million barrels of crude per day out of the region, known as the Williston Basin.
“Yeah, it’s fun isn’t it,” says Denis Smith, BNSF Vice President of Marketing of Industrial Products. "Three years ago there was one facility that could load a crude petroleum train up there. Now we’re going to have 10 by the end of the year and a dozen by next year. " These terminals load oil onto 100 car trains.
He says customers have spent about $1 billion on these loading facilities, rail cars, and other infrastructure. In turn, Smith says the railroad has had to make sure it had the capacity to move those trains to market.
“It’s about a dozen trains,” Smith says. “And it is impressive, but if you put it in light of something like our coal business where we haul 50-plus trains a day, we’re capable of doing it.”
According to a BNSF press release, the railroad’s network reaches all major coastal and inland markets and directly serves 30 percent of US refineries in 14 states through direct and interline service. The company has 1,000 miles of rail line in the Williston Basin area, serving eight originating terminals. BNSF also connects to 16 of the top 19 oil producing counties in central and western North Dakota and five of the six oil producing counties in eastern Montana.
The railroad recently announced it spent $197 million on projects in North Dakota and Montana. The company also hired more than 560 new employees across its service area.
Smith anticipates BNSF will continue to be a key transporter of Bakken/Williston Basin crude even if the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is constructed from Canada to the US Gulf Coast. The pipeline is primarily to transport Canadian tar sands crude to the US for refining, but on-ramps are planned in Montana to also transport Bakken crude.
“We go to the Texas/Louisiana gulf but some of the other markets are better markets for producers up there [ND/MT],” Smith says. As an example, he says rail can deliver crude directly to markets in Philadelphia, Chicago, Florida, and the Pacific Northwest. “That’s the beauty and the surprise I think to the producers,” he says. “The reach that we have in terms of getting them to markets that give them the best buck for their oil.”
Thursday, August 16, 2012
(Billings, Montana – YPR) – MontanaFair, the region’s largest fair, celebrates the state’s agricultural tradition with people competing to win the purple Best of Show ribbon for wool, pigs, and apple pie. But this year, MontanaFair is also celebrating the importance of the region’s energy industry – oil, gas and coal.
Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota are home to one of the country’s most active oil fields, the Bakken.
The energy exhibits are being held in a building between the mechanical bull ride and the Montana State University Extension Service agricultural and garden demonstration plots.
Event organizer Dana Pulis says Energy Day wants to celebrate Montana’s agricultural heritage and recognize another key industry. “We’re doing business with some of the biggest corporations in energy development while we’re wearing jeans, while we’re in a 100-year-old barn, and while we’re enjoying ice cream and hot apple pie.” Pulis says.
Several companies brought working oil field equipment for public display. Alan Olson of Sanjel Corporation brought what’s known as “the blender.” This 73-foot long truck mixes the hydraulic fracturing – or fracking - fluid and sand. Olson says once MontanaFair is over, this unit is headed for Texas.
A horsepower unit injects the fluid into the wells.
Texas license plates are common in Billings because of the Bakken oil boom. When Olson is asked if Montana is the new Texas: "When you go down and look at our operations in Texas, all of our equipment down there has Montana license plates," he says. "So Texas is the new Montana."
This oil field services truck by Cliffhanger, LLC heats up water. “This is a spectacular piece of equipment, says Olson. “We’ve got to heat up water in the wintertime. You can’t frack or cement with ice cubes.”
Sanjel and Nabors Well Services, the world’s largest on-shore drilling company, are among those also looking at fairgoers as potential employees.
“We’re looking for truck drivers,” says Russ Burch of Billings. The human resources district manager oversees hiring for Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. “I need to hire about 40 of them [truck drivers] to work rotations for us in North Dakota.”
The catch, he says, is they need to be experienced in winter driving -- and willing to put on chains in below-zero temperatures with strong winds.
Thursday, July 12, 2012
(Glendive, MT – YPR) – A company that provides drilling fluids for the oil industry says transportation is the reason why it chose to locate its Bakken Oil operations in a small Eastern Montana community.
“We depend so much on trucking,” says Joe Bowen, area manager of The Mud Master’s Group. “That’s the only reason why we’re not in Billings.” He says four to five semi trucks a day, loaded with Mud Master products, leaves the Glendive facility daily for the Bakken oil fields.
Mud Masters provides drilling mud and other products. The company has facilities in Texas, Louisiana Oklahome, West Virginia, and now Montana. The Bakken oil fields in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota is the secondlargest oil play in the U.S.
Bowen says he had to convince his bosses to locate a facility in Glendive over Billings. According to the 2010 census, the population of the city of Glendive is 4,935 people, while the population of the city of Billings (the state’s largest city) is 104,180 people.
“I considered Billings hard,” says Bowen who still has a home in Billings, as well as in Glendive. “I lived in Billings when Mud Masters wanted to expand into North Dakota. I wouldn’t live in North Dakota. I’m from Montana. I live in Montana.”
“I’m just as close in Glendive to every drilling rig in the Bakken as a business in Williston, North Dakota is,” he says.
To illustrate his point, Bowen draws an equilateral triangle on the chalkboard in his Glendive office. At each point, he writes: Glendive, Williston, and Dickinson; on each line he writes 98 miles. By contrast, Billings is another 220 miles to the West of Glendive or at least 3 ½ hours of driving time on I-94.
“By the time a truck leaves Billings and comes to the Bakken and delivers, before the driver can get home he runs out of time,” Bowen says. The distance from Billings to Williston is about 320 miles or just over 5 hours via I-94. Then there’s additional time and distance to the drilling rigs that dot the oil fields.
Bowen says Billings has the infrastructure, housing, shopping and other amenities that the smaller communities of Glendive and other Eastern Montana communities don’t. “But we depend so much on trucking,” he says. “That’s the only reason we’re not in Billings.”
Bowen says Billings remains vital to his company, however, because of its airport. The Glendive office has eight full-time employees who live in the area, he says. The remaining 10 rotate in and out from Texas, Louisiana, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. All will fly into Billings and either drive or board Silver Airways (provided by Gulfstream International Airlines), the Essential Air Service provider to rural Montana.
Monday, June 25, 2012
In fewer than 200 words on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Montana's 100-year-old prohibition on corporate spending in elections, setting the stage for renewed efforts to overturn Citizens United that don't involve the nation's highest court.
Tuesday, May 29, 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.
Friday, May 25, 2012
(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.
Wednesday, May 09, 2012
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.
Friday, April 06, 2012
(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.”
Thursday, March 22, 2012
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the population of Billings is just over 104,000 people and is the largest city in Montana.
Monday, March 19, 2012
(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.
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
(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.
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.
“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.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Emily Bazelon, senior editor at Slate, discusses the proposed Virginia ultrasound law that would mandate performing ultrasounds on women seeking abortions, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court decision to hear the case on affirmative action in higher education, Fisher vs. University of Texas, and Montana's attempt to reverse the 2010 Citizens United ruling that allowed corporate political spending.
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.’”
“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.
Friday, December 30, 2011
(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.
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
(Billings, MT-YPR) When U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will provide more than $215 million in aid for storm-ravaged roads and bridges, the press release only hinted at the damage caused this year by extreme weather events: tornadoes, hurricanes, record heat, and flooding.
In Montana alone, record snowfall, mountain snowpack, and spring rains meant an historic flood year. In mid-September, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials had identified nearly 1,500 public infrastructure projects, totaling nearly $50 million.
2011 is emerging as a record year for disasters. According to the Pew Center's stateline.org, about 39 states are awaiting money to repair storm damaged roads, bridges and other public infrastructure. Some of that request was to the FHWA, for which Congress allocates up to $100 million a year.
(For a related story on climate change and transit costs, click here.)
“Communities suffering from disasters have been hard at work restoring vital transportation links so people can resume daily activities soon as possible,” says LaHood. “They did their part, and now it’s our turn to give the states the money they were promised to help pay for that work.”
Lynn Zanto of the Montana Department of Transportation estimated costs to the state from this spring’s flooding at $36 million. The state’s reimbursement from FHWA, which will help repair bridges and roads, is just over $2.56 million.
“Although this may seem like a small amount compared to our overall costs, we’re still very appreciative to our (Congressional) delegation, (and) Secretary LaHood,” Zanto said in a press release. “We do our best to make every dollar count and we’ll keep our fingers crossed and remain hopeful that we’ll see future reimbursements to help mitigate the impacts from the spring floods.”
Those projects would have to initially be paid for by local governments; reimbursement requests would be submitted to FEMA. The FHWA emergency relief money is only to repair or rebuild federal-aid highways and or roads located on federal land.
MDT’s Lynn Zanto says the agency worked quickly to restore the flow of traffic to flood damaged roads and bridges. She says this includes a South Central Montana bridge off of Interstate 94 that was damaged by flooding.
She says funding for that work came from the agency’s program fund that would otherwise pay for planned highway projects, which were put on temporary hold.
Of the $215 million in federal aid, California received the largest amount at $43 million. North Dakota follows at $31.5 million, and Vermont will receive just over $15 million.
The allocation is the second this year for the Federal Highway Administration, which also distributed $319 million for aid in April. But those disbursements don’t match 2006 and 2007 disbursements for Hurricane Katrina damage.
Also extremely expensive for the FWHA: 2004 and 2005 disbursements for California, which cost in excess of $300 million each.