Gazette opinion: Do something about the rail traffic and our traffic – Billings Gazette, Aug. 20, 2014

August 21, 2014

Categories: Coal, News, Northern Plains Resource Council, Oil and gas

Have you noticed the traffic in downtown seems to be a bit more congested?

It’s not just the road construction. Or the sewer and water line replacements.

It’s something more than that. There’s been an uptick in rail traffic it seems. More folks are being held up for longer at the train crossings downtown.

Rarely, do we see a guest opinion in which our first response is: “Yes to what he said.” But in the case of Larry Bean’s most recent column on rail traffic and transportation in Billings, he hit a nerve.

Bean points out that the city of Billings and Yellowstone County have a long-range plan that is pre-Bakken. It doesn’t account for the tremendous growth in rail traffic, not just in oil cars but grain as well.

Bean points out that long-range transportation plan was based on a Federal Highway Administration Freight Analysis Framework that was developed in 2004, before Bakken, before Powder River Basin coal was being exported on the West Coast.

Bean also noted that the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council request to include a more realistic forecast has been ignored by both governments.

His basis for this is that traffic in Billings is stalled for nearly two hours a day as 32 trains come through. But, if projections hold that number will grow to 40 to 60 trains in just a little more than 10 years. Bean calculated it could mean 10 hours a day of delay.

In other words, you think delays are bad now, just wait.

We don’t have to take Bean’s accounting for it. You just have to drive downtown.

That’s why we hope Yellowstone County and the city of Billings will use more realistic numbers. Instead, it seems like the officials approach when it comes to rail traffic is to throw arms up in the air and declare, “It’s the railroads’ fault — what do you want us to do?”

And so, we’ll answer that: Find a solution.

Granted, solutions aren’t easy — overpasses, underpasses. But, as Billings continues to grow and as downtown is revitalized, traffic is only going to become more of a concern.

It will take money and negotiation in order to fix this problem which seems to always wind up in the too-hard pile. But, we believe if city and county officials really want to make a visible impact and produce a transportation plan that becomes more than a paperweight, then it might include a fix to the rail traffic-traffic congestion problem in downtown Billings.

It might even likely take state or federal funding to help fix the situation. If that’s the case, though, Billings and the sizable contingent of politicians need to get together and decide to fix this.

There’s more than just ease and inconvenience at stake. Having to go around the trains lessens law enforcement, fire and ambulance services to the South Side of Billings. We’re not the first community to be cut in half by rail. However, when it’s a heart attack, stroke, fire or assault, seconds count and minutes are an eternity.

Because Billings is literally a town founded upon deep rail roots, we have just accepted the trains as a way of life, if not an inconvenience. But Bean and the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council have correctly pointed out that it isn’t for lack of solutions that a fix has stalled. Instead, it’s a lack of political conviction or will.

The only way that will change is if citizens demand it.

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