Yellowstone County planning board seeks rail traffic study – Billings Gazette, May 14, 2012

May 16, 2012

Categories: Coal, Fossil Fuels, Landowner Rights, News, Northern Plains Resource Council

Commissioners may support review if coal references are dropped

By Clair Johnson

A study of increased rail traffic through Yellowstone County may be on track for getting support from county commissioners — provided it doesn’t pick on coal.

During a discussion meeting Monday afternoon with Yellowstone County commissioners, Paul Gatzemeier, president of the Yellowstone County Board of Planning, urged commissioners to support a local rail study to provide current information.

The planning board, he said, should be involved in the study because it makes recommendations to the governing bodies.

Gatzemeier presented a letter from the planning board that said it had discussed the need for a study to address the impacts of a possible increase in rail traffic, especially through the downtown rail corridor, and that there is “considerable interest” in the issue because of expected increases in export coal shipments.

“It should be a priority project to provide current, balanced information for planning purposes,” the letter said.

The three commissioners agreed to consider the request, provided the planning board dropped references to a controversial environmental study of the consequences of increased coal shipments to proposed port expansions in Washington state and included rail shipments of other commodities, not just coal.

“This is totally political. It shouldn’t be in there,” said Commission Chairman John Ostlund.

“We don’t want to see coal being picked on,” said Commissioner Jim Reno.

Gatzemeier responded that the letter did include other commodities but highlighted coal as the spark heating up the latest round of debate on rail traffic.

“Coal is driving the discussion. Period,” he said.

The rail traffic issue has been studied eight times since 1958, with the last study in 2004 fizzling in the draft stage, Gatzemeier said.

His conclusion from reading the studies, he said, is that elected officials and governing bodies did not take a leadership role to follow through on recommendations.

Last month, the commission rejected a request from the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council to participate in the environmental review process in Washington state.

Instead, the commission gave full support to exporting Montana coal as good for economic development.

The Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council said it was concerned about the increased rail traffic through the county. In a two-day conference on the issue in March, the council estimated that increased sales of Montana and Wyoming coal to Asian markets could result in 40 coal trains a day passing through Billings, about triple the number of trains in 2009.

The council made similar pitches to the Billings City Council and to the planning board.

Planning Director Candi Beaudry said the City Council did not act on the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council’s request. The planning board responded to the organization by supporting a local study, she said.

Beaudry had not seen information on train traffic for other commodities but said that would be part of the study.

The planning board will redraft the letter and present it to the commissioners and to the City Council, Beaudry said.

The planning board’s jurisdiction includes Billings and the county, except Laurel, and is governed by a 12-member board of city and county representatives. The board receives federal money for transportation planning, Beaudry said.

“To study (rail) impacts using our transportation planning funds is a reasonable application of those funds,” Beaudry said.

The planning board, with the county’s and city’s support, proposes to ask the Policy Coordinating Committee to discuss issue. The committee, which is composed of the county, city, planning board, Montana Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration, would need to approve a study for funding.


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