Traffic congestion due to trains is already a problem for Billings.
Increasing coal exports and oil-by-rail will only exacerbate the congestion creating serious safety and transportation infrastructure problems. The South Side would be cut off from public services, and Billings would risk losing the downtown economic revitalization achieved through decades of effort and investment.
The City of Billings and Yellowstone County recently completed their Long Range Transportation Plan to examine the transportation needs of Billings and plan improvements for the next 20 years.
The draft plan was based on the 2004 Federal Highway Administration Freight Analysis Framework, which was created before Powder River Basin coal was being exported to Asia or the Bakken oil boom.
In public comment, we requested that more realistic forecasts to be included, so that Billings is prepared to address the many possible scenarios of future rail traffic.
That request was ignored.
Instead, our public officials accepted the out-of-date, one-scenario plan offered by their consultants. Billings’ taxpayers deserved a more robust plan for their money. The citizens of Billings need decision-makers with more leadership and foresight.
Coal to Asia, rail congestion for Billings
Traffic in Billings is currently stopped for two hours a day as 32 trains traverse the city. If the Bakken oil boom continues and the three proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest are built, those numbers will increase. Based on current projections, by 2025 Billings could see 40 to 60 additional trains pass through the city daily causing the rail road crossings to be occupied for 10 hours a day.
Delay and denial
Despite the impending reality of increased rail traffic, the City of Billings and Yellowstone County continue to trivialize the problem. Because of the poor projections for future rail traffic based on old data, the final Transportation Plan states that the 13th Street underpass will not be considered until 2025, and rebuilding the 21st Street underpass is on the 2035 “wish list.”
Where is Billings’ foresight?
Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services is currently planning for the possibility of an oil train derailment in downtown Billings by engaging in hands-on derailment trainings.
Other local governments in the region, including Livingston, Missoula, Sandpoint, Idaho and Spokane, Wash., are proactively addressing how increasing coal export and oil-by-rail traffic will affect their communities.
Billings deserves the same foresight in planning to develop practical solutions. The Transportation Plan can be improved if we take time now to fairly forecast the future of rail transportation. When we are experiencing standstill traffic, coal dust pollution and diminished public safety, it will be too late. And if money is the issue, how can we engage those who are profiting from the rail traffic to pay for the solutions?
We urge our city and county officials to consult with the railroads, other local officials along the rail route, and the citizens of Billings. We must be proactive in dealing with increased rail traffic to ensure that citizens and taxpayers are not burdened with the potential costs and dangers.
Larry Bean is the chair of the Coal Export Committee of Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council. YVCC is a grassroots community organization that advocates for a healthy, inviting and sustainable community in Billings.