Local officials got a chance Wednesday to share some of the city’s longstanding frustrations over street congestion caused by train traffic with a federal watchdog agency that is studying rail freight corridors and their effects on local communities.
Representatives from the U.S. General Accountability Office in Washington, D.C., and Chicago questioned county, city and state officials in a 45-minute conference call about issues surrounding train traffic, including congestion, alternative routes, studies, funding and what the community has done to address problems.
Alwynne Wilbur, a GAO analyst, said the study was requested by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who is chairman of the Transportation Subcommittee of the Committee on Environment and Public Works.
City Planning Director Candi Millar told GAO officials that while the issues have been around for a long time, the community has been looking at the situation “pretty intensely for the last two years.”
There has been an increase in train traffic, particularly with coal trains and oil tankers, Millar said. Currently, 15 to 20 trains a day pass through downtown Billings. There “seems to be more trains but they’re also longer,” she said.
Trains cause delays at three downtown crossings – 27th, 28th and 29th streets, between Montana and Minnesota avenues — for pedestrians, vehicles and emergency responders, she said.
“Sometimes these delays are significant. That, basically, is our concern,” she said.
Billings will be considered in the report as part of a special study of freight issues in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota, Wilbur said. The energy boom in the Bakken region and its effect on freight transportation are relevant to other parts of the country,
The GAO is in the early stages of its investigation. A report is expected next summer or fall. The goal, Wilbur said, is to provide Congress with information and make recommendations. Congress will be considering funding for the highway authorization bill, which expires Sept. 30, 2014.
GAO is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. The agency investigates how the federal government spends taxpayers’ money.
Wilbur, who had reviewed the 2004 Draft Billings Railroad Crossing Feasibility Study, asked whether any of the study’s recommendations had been adopted and if the community had a preferred alternative.
The study, commissioned by the former Over, Under and Around the Railroad Tracks Committee, was never adopted by the city. It said building an overpass or underpass could cost between $18 million and $120 million.
There is now a quiet zone at the downtown crossings where trains can’t blast their horns but can travel faster, Millar noted. There also are advanced warning signs on 27th Street to warn motorists of a train crossing, and two more are planned, she said.
A pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the tracks at 25th Street — a project that has been in the works for 12 years — is to begin construction next year, and the state is looking at upgrading traffic signal controllers to allow for left turns from 27th Street when the tracks are blocked, she said. Those are all short-term solutions, she added.
Upgrading undersized underpasses would require federal funding, Millar said. There are three underpasses — at 21st and 13th streets and on Sixth Street West. The 21st Street underpass, which is closest to 27th Street, has a clearance of only 8 feet and can’t accommodate some emergency vehicles.
Wilbur asked whether there had been any outreach to the railroad companies or private businesses for funding.
Millar responded that a group composed of representatives from the city, county, railroad and Downtown Billings Association meets quarterly to discuss train issues. Local government, she said, has not asked railroad companies or DBA directly for money.
“We’ve hinted,” Kennedy said. “They are aware of it.”
County Commissioner John Ostlund said the Bakken energy boom has brought welcome economic development to the community in addition to increased train traffic. He urged the GAO to consider recommending increasing funding to address the effects of the boom.