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Transportation Nation

Montana Lawmakers Consider Exempting Megaloads from Extra Environmental Review

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The ConocoPhillips megaload moving through a Helena intersection in February 2011. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka

(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.

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Transportation Nation

Montana Considers Legal Limit for Marijuana In DUI Laws

Friday, March 15, 2013

(Helena, MT – YPR) – Montana lawmakers are considering whether to join a dozen other states in setting a legal limit for the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana in its DUI laws.

“This bill is not an anti- or pro-marijuana bill,” says House Bill 168’s sponsor David “Doc” Moore, R-Missoula. “It’s about impaired driving.”

The bill seeks to set the legal limit at 5 ng/ml of delta-9 tetrahyrocannabinol. It’s the same limit set in Montana’s medical marijuana laws.

He says now that Montana’s neighbors -- Washington and Colorado -- have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, he’s concerned impaired drivers may be traveling through the state.

Montana Highway Patrol Sargent Curt Sager trains law enforcement officials in drug recognition. He says while DUI cases involving alcohol are on the decline in the state, marijuana continues to escalate.

He told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2010 that 372 of the DUI cases involved marijuana; in 2011 that rose to 476; and last year it grew again to 486 cases.

Sager adds the numbers are growing for DUI fatalities involving marijuana. He says they now account to ¼ of the cases.

“So obviously this is a very dangerous, deadly problem that we’re encountering on our roadways,” he says.

He says setting a legal limit for Delta-9 THC for marijuana is based on the .08 blood alcohol content (BAC) in the DUI laws.

Retired chiropractor Pat Pardis is a member of the Montana Cannabis Information Association. He’s against the bill, saying science is inconclusive as to whether the 5 ng/ml limit is accurate to designate an impaired driver.

“We do not believe that per se laws really improve safety on the highway,” he says. “It may make it easier to put somebody in jail or into a treatment program.”

HB 168 passed through the Montana House on a 80-18 vote. The Senate Judiciary Committee did not immediately act on the bill.

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Transportation Nation

Want to Drive a Semi in Montana? Be Prepared to Wait

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

(photo by Bradley Gordon via flickr)

(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.

Montana State Capitol in Helena. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka

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.

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Transportation Nation

Montana Legislators Want Drivers to Give School Buses More Room

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rep. "Doc" Moore, the sponsor of HB 155. (Photo by Jackie Yamanaka)

(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.

Rep. Kristin Hansen (R-Havre), chair of the House Education Committee, posing with her toy school bus after the vote. (Photo by Jackie Yamanaka)

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.

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Transportation Nation

Montana Ranchers Worry Proposed New Rail Line Route Will Expedite Export of Coal to Asia

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Colstrip, MT-area rancher Clint McRae

(Billings, MT – YPR) – Even in the wide open plains of Southeastern Montana, there's not enough land to go around, not when the rights of local ranchers clash with global energy ambitions of a coal mining company.

A proposed rail route is becoming the fault line in the dispute. It could run right through Clint McRae's property, and he doesn't like it.

The new preferred route for the long-stalled Tongue River Railroad (TRR) project will interrupt cattle operations so private companies can export more coal to Asia, says McRae, a rancher who has emerged as a designated spokesman for several area landowners who oppose the rail project.

“We have a situation where a private, for-profit corporation has the power to use eminent domain – federal eminent domain – to condemn my private land so we can export coal to China. I have a huge problem with this,” he says.

The main purpose of the rail line is to serve the proposed Otter Creek Coal tracts in southeastern Montana. The area is located in a coal-rich area known as the Powder River Basin (PRB). The mine is currently undergoing the permitting process. Proponents of the new rail line have filed an updated route proposal with the Federal Surface Transportation Board.

The route, known as the Colstrip Alignment, came as a surprise to McRae who ranches south of Colstrip, MT. He says this new proposed route wasn’t identified at the project’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Scoping meetings held across Southeastern Montana in November.

“The issue that we had then is that the maps were so lousy we could not tell exactly where it (the rail line) went,” McRae says.

He says that according to the map of the new proposed route, the TRR rail line will go across nine miles of his land and disrupt his ability to move cattle between pastures. McRae says his Amish neighbors told him they're worried they won't have a rail crossing that can accommodate horse-drawn buggies.

The long-stalled TRR project is now owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company (BNSF), Arch Coal Incorporated, and billionaire Forrest Mars Jr.

BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg says the new preferred route has less of an impact. "Well, this Colstrip route affects fewer landowners,” she says. “It also doesn’t require a new crossing of I-94. And the alignment in the Tongue River Valley went from 68 miles to 8.5 miles.”

Lundsberg says the new route is possible because advances in rail technology. She says the Colstrip Alignment has a steeper grade than the route originally identified, but operationally it is more attractive.

“First of all we’re reducing the route from 83 miles to 42 miles,” She says. “And we’re still able to keep the same train size and locomotive configuration on the Colstrip route.”

In announcing the acquisition of the Otter Creek Coal tracts, St. Louis-based Arch Coal Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Steven F. Leer said, “…We believe these Northern PRB reserves will help us competitively serve U.S. power producers, supply additional coal for export to emerging Asia or possibly house the site of a future coal-conversion facility.”

In addition to his objection as landowner, Clint McRae is a member of the Montana-based conservation group Northern Plains Resource Council. McRae is calling on the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) to hold additional hearings in Montana on this new TRRC Supplemental Application.

He says, “I think it’s extremely underhanded for the Burlington Northern railroad to pull this kinda thing. They could have done this around Thanksgiving and they chose to wait until the 11th hour to spring it on us. I think that is unconscionable.”

BNSF’s Suann Lundsberg says she has not heard whether the STB will hold additional public meetings. “The public process is a process the STB goes through to set the scope. We were continuing to do our engineering work that we needed to do regardless. So this just happened to be something we said, ‘You know this looks like a better route for us.’”

The STB extended the deadline for filing comments on the Draft Scope of Study for the TRR Environmental Impact Statement until January 11, 2013. A call to the STB about whether additional public hearings will be held was not immediately returned.

Map of the proposed Tongue River Railroad Colstrip Alignment

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Transportation Nation

VIDEO: Transportation Nation's Mug. It Can Be Yours.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Action shot from "Multi-Modal Mug" shot film by Amy Pearl / WNYC

At Transportation Nation, we serve up serious news, with flair, style, and a flash of java.

Rejoice. (And get a tax deduction, too.) You can own a Transportation Nation coffee mug.

'What's so exciting about a coffee mug?' you might ask. 'It doesn't run on a smart grid or move at the speed of a bullet train." But, friends, it is a reminder to you of all the value this site has brought you in 2012. And your donation shows our reporters here at TN that you care.

Plus, the video is hilarious. We present to you the multi-modal mug. Yours as a thank-you gift for a donation of $5 / month to our ad-free, nonprofit public media project.

If you won't donate, consider sending this around to your friends who might.

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Transportation Nation

Proposed Montana Coal Railroad Under Scrutiny

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

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

(Billings, MT – YPR) – The federal Surface Transportation Board is hosting a series of public meetings this week in Montana on a proposed railroad that could expand coal mining and perhaps lead to more coal exports to Asia.

The meetings are part of an environmental review for the proposed Tongue River Railroad (TRR).

The proposed TRR route. Map provided by BNSF

The 83-mile line would extend from Miles City, MT to the proposed Otter Creek Coal tracts. The TRR developers estimate the railroad would haul up to 20 million tons of coal annually or about half of Montana’s current coal production.

The long-stalled proposal has faced decades of delays due to court and funding challenges.

Some southeastern Montana landowners and environmental groups have opposed the railroad, saying it will industrialize a rural agricultural area and the burning of coal will worsen climate change. The TRR backers say the project will boost the economy.

It now has new owners:  The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, Arch Coal Inc., and billionaire Forrest Mars, Jr.

Arch Coal is seeking to build a coal mine at the southern end of the railroad, near Ashland, MT at Otter Creek.

The deadline for public comments on the TRR proposal is December 6, 2012.

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Transportation Nation

Beaver Family Out-Engineers Humans, Repeatedly Floods Road, Stays Cute (PICS)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A busy beaver family has flooded out a Wyoming road and stymied multiple efforts to gently bust their dam. (Photo by Sue Consolo-Murphy, GTNP)

(Grand Teton National Park , WY– YPR) – Human engineers faced off against nature’s engineers in an effort to save a scenic road in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park (GTNP).

“Beavers have been called the civil engineers of the natural world because they are prone to making these very extensive dams,” says park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs.

One extensive dam and lodge flooded a portion of the scenic Moose-Wilson Road in GTNP. As a result park staff placed a system of perforated pipes in the pond in early August to gently flow water through the dam and lower the water level.

The GTNP beaver family. © 2012 Jackie Gilmore, all rights reserved

“We were concerned that we were going to lose the road all together,” says Skaggs.

The beavers had other ideas.

Nature photographer Jackie Gilmore of Jackson Hole, WY says within hours of the park’s mitigation work the beavers began to plug up all of the holes in the pipe with mud.

“The term ‘busy as a beaver’ was really obvious,” Gilmore says. The adults in this family of nine beavers quickly got to work, “going back and forth doing all this work,” she details. Within a few hours she says the water level began to rise again in the beaver pond.

So GTNP officials went back to the drawing board.

This time they installed a bigger bundle of longer pipes. Skaggs says they are 30 feet long. She says the system was designed to gently divert the water through the dam and further downstream.

GTNP crews preparing to lift a bundle of pipes to allow some water to flow past the beaver dam and lodge and downstream. Photo by Jackie Skaggs, GTNP.

Given the ingenuity of the beavers, however, park crews took steps to protect their work. There’s a wire cage at the front to keep the beavers from plugging up the pipes with sticks and mud. Posts also hold the pipes in place. Skaggs says beavers have been known to raise such pipes, rendering them ineffective.

View of the cage that is protecting the network of diversion pipes in front of the beaver dam in GTNP. Photo by Jackie Skaggs, GTNP

She says signs will be put up at the beaver pond to explain how this system works. “We’re trying to find that nice balance to protect the park road but also protect the beavers, our number one priority.”

The GTNP beaver pond. Photo by Jackie Skaggs, GTNP.

Gilmore, who’s been a nature photographer since 1978 in Jackson Hole, praises park officials for protecting the beaver’s habitat. She’s been watching this beaver family up close all summer. She says many times a crowd would gather.

“Everyone was able to see what they look like, how they acted, and there were points where you could actually see their large incisor teeth they use to cut off the branches,” she says.  “And if everybody was quite quiet and respectful you could hear them chewing and every once in a while they would make this humming sound. It was just an amazing experience,” she says.

Skaggs says the Moose-Wilson Road is a destination for Grand Teton National Park visitors because of the abundance of wildlife, including moose and a great grey owl.

She says because of that there have been conflicts between wildlife and people. So this beaver battle has drawn new attention to a plan to move the road. The road re-alignment is just one project in a a larger Grand Teton National Park transportation plan, signed in 2007. Skaggs says park officials are hopeful funding will allow the project to proceed in 2015.


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Transportation Nation

PHOTOS: Waiting for a Train, Montana-Style

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

(Laurel, MT - YPR) – Many motorists feel annoyed about having to wait a a rail crossing for a passing freight train. Rail crossings also impact farmers just east of the Montana Rail Link switching yard, east of Laurel.

photo by Jackie Yamanaka.

After a few minutes of waiting, this Montanan decided to put his feet up and take the wait in stride.

photo by Jackie Yamanaka.

The possibility of more train traffic and longer and more frequent waits at rail crossings has been raised in Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Some Powder River Basin coal mines in Montana and Wyoming want to export their coal to Asian markets. That coal would travel via rail to proposed new port projects in the Pacific Northwest.

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Transportation Nation

Pink Fire Trucks Stop In Montana

Friday, September 07, 2012

Wildland firefighting trucks out on a fire south of Billings. (Photo by Jackie Yamanaka)

(Billings, MT - YPR) Montana is in the midst of a severe wildfire season. Crews from across the country and their wildland firefighting trucks have become a common sight this summer, as pictured above.

Billings residents did a double take recently when a several pink structure firefighting trucks pulled into town. They stopped overnight at the local Holiday Inn.

(Photo by Jackie Yamanaka)

The "Pink Heals Campaign" is currently on a three-month tour of several mid-Western and Western States. Founder Dave Graybill says the tour is to encourage communities to come together to support their women, men and children fighting cancer. The retired firefighter has recruited about a half-dozen firefighters to join him on the tour.

Joel Mains is a firefighter and paramedic from Crystal Lake, IL.  He says what has surprised him on this tour is the kindness of strangers. "We were at a truck stop and one of the belts was making a little bit of noise," Mains says. "And this old truck driver came up and climbed up on the back end of the engine and we popped the hatch and he gave us a hand. That happens frequently."

Pink Heals Founder Dave Graybill. (Photo by Jackie Yamanaka)


The "Pink Heals" Tour wraps up in Maricopa, AZ in October. In the meantime, here are a few more photos so you can keep your eye out for them as the roll through your town.


Visitors are encouraged to sign the trucks. (Photo by Jackie Yamanaka)


Visitors to the Rimrock Mall also included some members of the Billings Fire Department. (Photo by Jackie Yamanaka) 


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Transportation Nation

Rail Hauls One Million of Barrels of Oil A Day From North Dakota's Oil Fields

Thursday, September 06, 2012

A rail terminal near Williston, North Dakota where crude is loaded onto tank cars. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka.

(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.”


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Transportation Nation

Montana's State Fair Highlights Agriculture -- And Oil Drilling Equipment

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"Bonnie" and "Clyde" were guests at Energy Day at MontanaFair. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka

(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.

Sanjel's "Blender" (photo by Jackie Yamanaka)

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.

Schlumberger brought this horsepower pumping unit. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka.

A horsepower unit injects the fluid into the wells.

Photo by Jackie Yamanaka.

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."

Photo by Jackie Yamanaka

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.”

Russ Burch of Nabors Well Services. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka

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.

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Transportation Nation

Trucking Key Reason Oil Service Company Moves to Small Eastern Montana Town

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Joe Bowen of Mud Masters holds up a sample of "drilling mud" used on the drilling rigs at his office in Glendive, MT. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka.

(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.

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Transportation Nation

Heath Care Architect Baucus: I Was Focused on Transpo Bill

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Senator Max Baucus, left, touring Mark Rite Lines Equipment Company, a Billings, MT-based highway striping equipment manufacturing facility with company president Jim Spielman, R.

(Billings, MT – YPR)  - The chief  architect of the Affordable Care Act says he wasn’t sitting in the U-S Supreme Court to hear the justices uphold the law. Instead Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) was working on passing a federal transportation bill.

“I was thinking of going over (to the Supreme Court) but frankly I have so much to do,” Baucus says. “I gotta work to get this highway bill passed.” He says sitting at the Court would be “very interesting. Historical. But not the best use of my time.”

Baucus is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He’s also a member of the subcommittee Conference Committee the current transportation bill which expires Saturday.

Baucus says he's pleased a deal could be reached even if it covers only about 2 1/2 years.

“That’s half a loaf.  Usually highway bills are 5 or 6 years. That would be a whole loaf,” he says. A full re authorization would give better certainty to highway departments, contractors, and others to plan ahead, he says.

In reaching the compromise, Republicans on the conference committee gave up on two key points, including putting on a fast track a permit for the proposed Keystone X-L pipeline. Baucus also strongly supports that project.

“Am I disappointed? Yes. I am disappointed,” he says. “But look we got a highway bill. A highway bill absent Keystone is better than no highway bill at all.”

Baucus says the Keystone X-L pipeline project comes down to job creation for Montana and elsewhere and energy independence, “I think it’s a no brainer. It should be in there but it’s not. I’ll keep fighting for it.”

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Transportation Nation

40% of Traffic in Williston is Semi-Truck

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

An intersection in Williston, North Dakota. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka.

(Sidney, MT and Williston, ND – YPR) – The amount of semi-truck traffic in the Bakken oil field communities is stunning.

“It isn’t uncommon that you will come through here (intersection in Williston) and see that the trucks will be backed up for a mile,” says Williston Economic Development Executive Director Tom Rolfstad. “They all have to take a left hand turn here, so it gets to be a real bottleneck.”

Williston officials want to create a truck route to divert semi traffic around the community.

“You can see the ration of trucks here,” Rolfstad says. “We are approaching 40% truck traffic on our roads. The highway engineers say 12% truck traffic is considered to be high.”

The volume of the semi traffic is undermining the road beds under paved and gravel roads.  The roads designed to handle just moderate truck and farm traffic, since both Sidney, Montana and Williston, North Dakota are agriculture-based communities.

Richland Economic Development Executive Director Leslie Messer in Sidney says in the Spring when gravel roads are slick and muddy, the farmers most likely will idle their tractors.

“This industry (oil) doesn’t stop,” she says. “They’re dragging. They’re pushing. They are pulling. They are thrashing the (road) beds if they can’t get in there.”

Messer says it will take about 2,200 semi loads to service 1 oil well over that well’s lifetime. Most of the activity is in the drilling phase when loads of water, sand, pipe, and other materials are delivered to the site.

She says some of the oil companies are repairing the damage they cause to the roads otherwise its up to local government as part of its road maintenance program.

“We’ve built lots of roads for Richland County. Glad to do so,” says Russell Atkins, area production manager of the Bakken Operations for Continental Resources. “We needed the road to that (oil) well.”

He says in instances where there is no road but Richland County had the right-of-way, Continental would build a road and leave the maintenance to the counties in Montana and North Dakota.  The affected counties are looking to their respective state Capitols and the federal Transportation Rea-authorization bill to help pay for the costs of building and maintaining affected oil patch roads.

“All that we ask is once it is built up and the drilling activity has subsided please maintain it. We’re glad to build it,” he says. “We get a few that think, ‘well, you are just going to build it, maintain it, and do everything from now on.’ It doesn’t work quite like that,” Atkins says.

Atkins says the oil companies are working at a furious pace to lock up leases with production wells. He says 90% of the work remains.  Atkins calls the Bakken oil play world class. He places this portion of the Williston Basin right up with reserves in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

“Our estimates of recoverable oil is 24 billion barrels. That’s 20 of oil and 4 of barrels of oil equivalent of natural gas. To do this is going to take 48,000 wells,” he says.

Besides all of the semi-truck activity needed to carry out that work, there’s also an increase of pick-up truck traffic, notes Williston Economic Development’s Tom Rolfstad.

“This is kinda a big ass pickup with a welding unit on the back,” says Rolfstad. “You kinda look like a wimp if you come here driving a Kia or a Subaru.”

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Transportation Nation

Photo Essay: Montana & ND Oil Boom Leads to Acute Housing Shortage

Monday, June 18, 2012

(Sidney, MT and Williston, ND – YPR) - The Bakken oil fields brought an influx of people and activity to across Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota. Oil industry officials say the Bakken reserves have made North Dakota the #2 oil producing state behind Texas.

The Sidney Area Chamber of Commerce says agriculture is the predominant industry in the northeast Montana community. Oil wells are often tucked among sugar beet or wheat fields.

An oil pumper in a field near Sidney, Montana. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka.

Small agriculture communities, like Sidney near the Montana-North Dakota border, were not prepared for the rapid increase in population. There's a shortage of affordable houses for sale or rent. Even the local motels and hotels are full forcing many working in the oil patch to live in their vehicles, tents, campers or RV's

A trailer park in Sidney, MT. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka.


Some workers are able to find housing in "man camps," but only when they are on shift. The oil companies reserve rooms at the Williston North Lodge for workers during their shift. Workers shed their coveralls and work boots in the "mud room" at the lodge entrance.

photo by Jackie Yamanaka.


The rooms resemble a college dorm room, with a bed, small table, a small closet for personal belongings, and there's a shared bathroom. Deluxe rooms are a little larger with a private bathroom.  The lodge, run by Target Logistics, provides 24/7 dining, recreation room, wireless internet/computer room, convenience store, housekeeping, and self-serve laundry.

A bed one of the lodge rooms. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka.


Economic development officials say the Bakken Oil development has also brought an increase in semi-truck traffic through Williston. Tom Rolfstad, executive director of economic development for the city of Williston, says 40% of the vehicles on the road are semis. "The highway engineers say that 12% truck traffic is considered to be high," he says.

The main highway through Williston. Officials want to create a truck route to divert semi traffic away from the main road through town. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka.


Semi-truck traffic delivers pipe, water, and other materials needed to drill and maintain a well. Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota's Mineral Resources Division, recently said it can take up to 1,000 semi loads to drill and frack (hydraulic fracturing) each well in the Bakken oil play.

Fracking contractor Sanjel re-fuels at a truck stop in Miles City, MT. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka.

Semis are also used to transport crude from the production fields to rail loading facilities. The lack of pipeline capacity means companies are relying on other means to get crude to refineries.

A rail terminal near Williston, North Dakota where crude is loaded onto tank cars. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka.


The proposed Keystone X-L Pipeline project seeks to provide an "on-ramp" for Bakken crude to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.


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Transportation Nation

Montana Locality: No Studies That Will Slow Coal Train

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

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.

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Transportation Nation

What Makes A Recreational Trail "Outstanding?" These Eight Get the Prize

Monday, June 04, 2012

(Billings, MT – YPR) – Eight trail projects from across the country are being recognized for their outstanding use of money from the federal Recreational Trails Program (RTF) funds.

The 14th Annual Achievement Awards were chosen by the Coalition for Recreational Trails.

Winning trails meander through Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Wyoming. See the full list below.

The awards will be handed out June 5, 2012 on Capitol Hill. The celebration is part of Great Outdoors Week 2012. Two states and members of Congress also will be recognized.

One of the winners is a multi-use trail in Billings, Montana. The Swords Park Trail, Phase 2 is on top of the sandstone cliffs that frame the north end of the state’s largest city.

“When you’re up on the trail system you have incredible views of the Yellowstone River valley, of Billings itself, and you can also see 2 mountain ranges in the distance – The Beartooth Mountains and the Pryor Mountains,” says Darlene Tussing, alternate modes coordinator for the city of Billings. “It really is a beautiful environment.”

The Montana trail is the winner in the Environment and Wildlife Compatibility category.

Phase 2 converted what was once a historic road bed and historic site for early settlers to the Yellowstone Valley. This includes Sacrifice Cliff and Skeleton Cliff, important to the Crow Indian Tribe. There’s also Yellowstone Kelly’s grave and Boot Hill, both tributes to early white settlers to the Yellowstone Valley.

The Montana trail project serves both motorized and non-motorized users. The Swords Park, Phase 2 also won the 2012 Montana State Parks “Trail of the Year Award.”

“Because we wanted to give people choices,” says Candi Beaudry, Director of the City-County Planning Department. “It’s not one mode over the other. We look at all users and that’s embodied in the city’s Complete Streets Policy.”

Funding for this project came from a variety of sources, including the RTP.

“It’s important for Congress to understand how programs passed and operated here in D-C have real life impact on opportunities for recreation at the grass roots level all across this country,” says Derrick Crandall, President of the American Recreation Coalition.

Other winners are:

• The Lombard Trail (Idaho) – Maintenance and Rehabilitation

  • Intertwine Alliance Bi-State Regional Trails Website (Oregon and Washington) – Education and Communication
  • Kwolh Butte Shelter (Oregon) – Multiple Use Mangement and Corridor Sharing
  • Cattahoochee Nature Trails (Florida) – Construction and Design (local)
  • Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway (Nevada) Construction and Design (long-distance)
  • Children’s Center’s Life Trails and Therapeutic Park (Oklahoma) – Accessibility Enhancement
  • Mount Yale Trail Realignment Project (Colorado) – Use of Youth Conservation and Service Corps.

The RTP is administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration.  It was created in 1991 and funding comes from the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

“The Congress said it’s only fair,” says Crandall. “Because a number of recreational trail interests, including: ATV’s, snowmobilers, motorcyclists and 4x4’s pay the federal gas tax on the fuel that they use in their recreational activities. It’s only fair that the money goes into the purposes that are directly benefiting recreation trails as opposed to paving roads or doing other kinds of traditional highway trust fund funded projects.”

Crandall says the RTF budget is about $84 million a year, a fraction of the $200 million collected each year from the roughly 18¢/gallon federal fuel tax from non-highway recreationists.  Congress is working on a surface transportation reauthorization bill. Crandall is optimistic the Recreational Trails Program will continue to receive funding.

“While they (Senate and the House) may not agree on lots of things,” he says “They do seem to be in complete agreement on that (RTP funding).”

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Transportation Nation

Baucus: Full 5-Year Transportation Re-Authorization Unlikely, For Now

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Senator Max Baucus, left, touring Mark Rite Lines Equipment Company, a Billings, MT-based highway striping equipment manufacturing facility with company president Jim Spielman, R.

(Billings, MT – YPR) – A leading member of the Congressional conference committee working on a transportation reauthorization bill doubts the panel will craft a full reauthorization bill by the June 30th deadline.

“Not this time,” says Senator Max Baucus (D-MT). “I don’t think there’s enough time in Congress. Believe it or not there’s not that many legislative days before Congress adjourns in October. But we’ve set it up so we have more than enough time next year to do a full reauthorization as a full 5 year bill.”

The current legislation expired in 2009.

Baucus (D-MT) chairs the Senate Finance Committee and the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He’s a ranking member of the conference committee tasked with finding common ground on a transportation bill before the current extension runs out at the end of June.

“I think everyone realizes that we’ve got to pass a highway bill and we’ll get it done,” says Baucus.

Baucus invited ambassadors from 5 foreign countries to visit several Montana communities this week to talk about trade opportunities.

He says the transportation conference committee is still working on issues, like the Keystone X-L pipeline. Some members of Congress want this and other projects inserted into the transportation bill. The original Keystone X-L project sought to build a 1,179 mile pipeline from the Tar Sand Fields in Alberta, Canada to refineries along the U-S Gulf Coast.

“Having said that,  the main point is that we are close to figuring out how to pay for the highway bill so we can extend it until next September,” Baucus says. “Hopefully for a little bit longer than that but at least to next September.” (September 2013)

Baucus says Congress knows businessmen, highway contractors and states are looking for more certainty when it comes to transportation funding.


Sen. Baucus driving one of MRL's highway striping trucks.


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Transportation Nation

Final Montana Yellowstone River Oil Spill Report To Be Released This Summer

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Oil on the surface of a wetland adjacent to the Yellowstone River (photo by NWFBlog via Flickr)

(Billings, MT – YPR) – The panel charged with reviewing all pipelines that cross Montana’s rivers and streams in the wake of last year’s ExxonMobil oil pipeline break into the Yellowstone River is to issue its final report to Governor Brian Schweitzer this summer.

Schweitzer, D-MT, issued an executive order creating the review council after the Silvertip Pipeline ruptured last July releasing an estimated 1,000 barrels of crude into the Yellowstone River.

Officials think floodwaters scoured the bottom of the Yellowstone River, exposing the pipeline.  Exxon Mobil estimated the spill clean up costs at about $135 million dollars.

Schweitzer directed the Montana Oil Pipeline Safety Review Council to assess the risk of ruptures and leaks for each pipeline that crosses a Montana waterway, including the pipeline’s location and the condition of emergency shut-off valves.

“We now have at our fingertips information on where those pipelines are and who they belong to,” says Bonnie Lovelace, regulatory affairs manager for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. She says key pieces of information are the locations of shut-off valves and whether companies have the latest technology for leak-detection.

“Which means pipeline companies having their control rooms watching those valves and having alarms that tell them that there’s a problem,” she says. Then quickly shutting down the flow.

Lovelace says one result of the review was the creation of an interactive Montana Pipeline Safety Map. She says the data came from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) from information from pipeline owners and operators. She says the database also includes: aerial photographs, topographic maps, property boundaries/ownership, wells, and monitoring stations.

Lovelace says one of the most significant lessons leaned from the Silvertip Pipeline break was the need for information.

“After realizing such a thing could happen, every body’s concerned about could it happen again,” she says. “Are there things we can do to be ready or to essentially prevent a further incident that we had on the Yellowstone River?”

Lovelace says that means working cooperatively with and supporting the U-S Transportation Department’s PHMSA, which regulates the nation’s 2.3 million miles of pipelines.

In the wake of the Silvertip Pipeline rupture, opponents called for tougher state and federal regulations for the proposed Keystone X-L pipeline project. The 1,700 mile pipeline proposal would transport crude from tar sand oil fields in Alberta, Canada and the Bakken Oil Fields in eastern Montana and western North Dakota to refineries on the U-S Gulf coast. The Obama Administration denied TransCanada’s permit last January on the grounds the congressionally mandated deadline did not give federal officials enough time to evaluate the proposal. TransCanada has since offered a shorter pipeline project from Cushing, OK to Port Arthur, TX, including a new route through Nebraska that skirts that state’s environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region and the Ogallala acquifer, the main water source for Nebraska residents.

In Montana, the Pipeline Safety Review Council identified 9,206 pipeline river crossings in Montana. “So we have lots and lots of network of pipelines throughout Montana,” she says. “It’s like a spider web.”

Crews taking water and soil samples during the oil cleanup on the Yellowstone River. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka

The Pipeline Safety Review Council is made up of the directors of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, The Montana Department of Transportation, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

The panel made 6 recommendations. Public comments on the report will be accepted until June 27, 2012. The Pipeline Safety Review Council plans to deliver a final report to the governor July 18, 2012.

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