Conference looks at impact of coal trains on downtown Billings

2012-03-10T00:15:00Z 2014-08-25T23:59:15Z Conference looks at impact of coal trains on downtown BillingsBy ED KEMMICK ekemmick@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Marion Dozier had a sobering message for people attending a conference Friday on the impact of coal-train traffic on downtown Billings.

Dozier said the group she headed -- the Over, Under or Around the Railroad Tracks Committee -- disbanded in 2008 after 10 years of hard, mostly disappointing labor.

"It's just a daunting process, so I wish you all the luck in the world," she said.

The conference in the Montana State University Billings ballroom was organized by the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council, the Downtown Billings Alliance and the Urban Institute at MSUB. The free conference will continue Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon, with discussions of planning for future impacts of coal trains and finding solutions and funding sources.

The Northern Plains Resource Council, of which the Yellowstone Citizens Council is an affiliate, said in a brochure handed out at the conference that increased sales of Wyoming and Montana coal to Asian markets could result in 40 coal trains a day passing through Billings.

Teresa Erickson, staff director of the NPRC in Billings, said that figure includes full cars heading west and empty cars coming back. She said the estimate is based on projections made by some of the major coal-mining companies.

Thomas Power, a University of Montana economics professor emeritus, said at a morning session of the conference that as many as 60 coal trains a day could pass through Billings.

Conference organizers said the increased train traffic will cause traffic congestion, safety hazards and public health problems.

The most noticeable impact now is the frequent closure of the three downtown railroad crossings -- at north 27th, 28th and 29th streets between Montana and Minnesota avenues.

Jim Lewis, director of sales and marketing for Montana Rail Link, which operates the BNSF tracks between Huntley and Sandpoint, Idaho, said an average of 15 trains a day passed through Billings in 2011.

Zak Andersen, a BNSF spokesman from Fort Worth, Texas, who attended the conference Friday, said he didn't know how many trains a day are projected to pass through Billings, but the estimate of 40 seemed very high.

Several different shipping terminals are proposed for construction on the West Coast for sending coal to Asia, but Andersen said none of them has even received a permit yet, much less begun building.

"Even with a West Coast facility, that's a lot of trains," he said.

Years before a big increase in train traffic was even discussed, however, Dozier and her group were looking for solutions to what already seemed like a major problem. Dozier, who lives on the South Side, said the train tracks bisect the downtown and often cut off the north and south sides of town, impeding access to the hospitals, the airport and the interstate.

In a panel discussion, Dozier said the Over, Under or Around committee met monthly for 10 years to find some way of dealing with train traffic. Their biggest coup was obtaining a $100,000 federal grant for a study, which was supplemented by $15,000 each from the city and the Downtown Billings Association.

In 2003, the study came up with a preferred alternative -- a railroad bridge over North 27th Street, paired with a shallow auto tunnel under the overpass -- but also with a price tag of $25 million. Dozier said local officials paid lip service to the need for a solution but were not supportive of actually seeking funding for the recommended fix.

"We didn't get any of the big players in town to support what we were doing," she said.

Erin Claunch, a staff engineer in the city's Public Works Department, said multiple studies of the railroad tracks have been done, going back to 1958. The 2003 study recommendation rose to the top because it was the only alternative that would not have interfered with traffic on Montana Avenue. Disadvantages included problems with groundwater and drainage and business impacts during construction.

Andersen, the BNSF spokesman, said two towns worth studying were Galesburg, Ill., and Olathe, Kan., both of which had heavy rail traffic and many at-grade railroad crossings. Those cities came up with solutions that included underpasses, overpasses, some crossing closures and the establishment of quiet zones.

Claunch pointed out that Billings has already implemented a quiet zone in downtown Billings, helped create upgraded railroad signals and installed advanced signals warning motorists of delays because of train traffic.

Also on the panel with Claunch and Dozier was Dr. Robert Merchant, a pulmonologist with Billings Clinic.

Merchant said more coal-train traffic "will markedly affect the health of my patients," because of increases in both diesel exhaust and coal dust. He said the amount of coal dust released by coal trains "is pretty guarded by the industry," but the NPRC brochure, citing a New York Times story, said each coal car loses roughly 500 pounds of coal dust during a trip to the West Coast.

Merchant said air pollution is particularly hard on people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and has been shown to increase the development of asthma in children. There is also a known association between air pollution and heart attacks and strokes, he said.

Friday's session attracted about 70 people throughout the day, including at least four members of the City Council and several state legislators.

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