More questions than answers at Columbus train forum – Billings Gazette, June 22, 2012

June 22, 2012

Categories: Coal, Landowner Rights

By Linda Halstead-Acharya

COLUMBUS — Columbus Mayor Gary Woltermann has spent more than 70 years in this Stillwater County seat, and he remembers when a train passing through town was a “big deal.”

Now Woltermann, who owns Git’s Big Sky Motel along Pike Avenue in Columbus, could do without the noise that 15 trains make as they blow their horns at the town’s two crossings each day. The mayor may prefer less noise but he also realizes the economic impact the railroad has had on Columbus.

“The reason the town is here is because of the railroad,” he said. “It’s not going to move.”

Woltermann’s take — reflecting both pros and cons of a proposed increase in train traffic — seemed indicative of many of the comments made during a meeting in Columbus Thursday evening. Organized by the Stillwater Protective Association, the gathering was attended by nearly 60 people, many of whom asked questions about an anticipated doubling of train traffic there. The projected increase is attributed to trains hauling coal from the Powder River Basin to western ports, from where it will be shipped to Asia.

However, the meeting spawned more questions than answers. There were questions regarding increased revenues, questions about building an underpass and questions about establishing quiet zones.

As Woltermann and two other panelists — Realtor Joyce Kelley and attorney Gordon Williams — discussed potential impacts, noise seemed to elicit the most objections. Kelley’s business, Parks Real Estate, is also located on Pike Avenue. Though she hasn’t noticed property sales suffering from train traffic, train-related noise does make business difficult inside the office, she said.

Williams spoke about the projected increase in traffic, from roughly one train every two hours now to every 45 minutes or even less.

“And we all know they don’t just come through and they’re gone,” he said.

Several attendees raised concerns about emergency services. The tracks through Columbus split the county in half, with most medical services, law enforcement and Columbus Fire Department all located on the north side. Because the town’s two crossing are separated by only two blocks, both are frequently obstructed simultaneously.

Addressing that issue, Woltermann said a third, private crossing may be available in the future for emergency use. He added that both the fire chief and police chief had told him they had never had an incident due to trains blocking access.

“If it’s a problem, it’ll be addressed,” he said. “Right now, it isn’t a problem.”

As the meeting wrapped up, discussion turned to questions about the next steps to be taken.

Moderator John Sellars recommended people communicate their concerns to local officials. He also suggested that Columbus coordinate with other towns along the rail line that will also be impacted.

“We’re looking for a comprehensive evaluation to consider the impacts in advance,” he said, “not a lawsuit six years from now.”


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