Additional train traffic flowing through the Gallatin Valley has been quietly talked about in governmental meetings over the last month, but Public Service Commissioner John Vincent openly broached the topic Tuesday.
Speaking during the public comment period, Vincent told the Belgrade City Council that the coal trains were coming and “it’s not ‘If’ the trains come, it’s ‘when.”
The topic first came up during meetings last month about the proposed Interstate 90 interchange east of Belgrade. If built, the interchange will provide a tunnel under the railroad tracks allowing one access for unencumbered flow.
The issue is the coal production in the Powder River Basin and a 121-mile railroad that would open a new area of the state to mining, according to Associated Press reports. The Tongue River Railroad would connect to an existing railroad line in Miles City and provide a straight shot to the West Coast.
The proposed railroad and the mining operations have been caught in separate legal snares as environmentalists try to halt the plan, according to AP reports. The railroad is needed to bring the leased rights of 1.5 billion tons of coal to Asia.
Vincent said plan has “major political backing” from both parties at the state and federal level and will boost governmental revenues. But it will also boost the amount of trains traveling through the valley to 44 to 80 additional trains a day. Daily train traffic is currently between 17-20 trains, according to Montana Rail Link.
“These trains will be in addition to the freight, grain and coal trains already passing through Belgrade and your three rail crossings,” he said. “As Belgrade City Council members, you already know what kinds of impacts that much more train traffic would have on Belgrade.”
He estimated that a train with 125 cars traveling at 44 mph would create about a 1.5-minute delay. Add 44 trains to the mix and it would total one hour and six minutes. Sixty trains would boost that number to one hour and 30 minutes while 80 trains per day would clock in a two-hour delay.
“Once again, these additional delays are on top of current rail crossing delays,” he said.
MRL spokeswoman Linda Frost had another take.
“That rumor is fairly prevalent out there,” she said. “There is a possibility, it’s not even a probability, that we could see an increase in traffic, but it’s not going to be 40 trains. It’s not going to be 20 trains. We don’t know what it’s going to be because there are so many variables in the decision making process.
“It’s not in six months and it’s not in a year, it’s in the future,” she added. “It’s really difficult to anticipate what type of traffic we will have at this point.”
Regardless, Vincent said coal companies have no legal obligation to pay for, or help pay for, the infrastructure needed to “mitigate these impacts.” Also, the state has nothing in place to assist communities down the line. The feds may cover 10 percent of infrastructure costs.
“Under state law, the state only provides revenue to those counties immediately impacted by coal development,” he said.
Vincent urged the council to work with its legislative delegation and other communities with a similar problem to secure state funds for coal mining impacts to transportation. As it stands, only counties where the coal mining occurs receives funding.
“Coal and coal transportation cause the impacts, taxes from coal should be available to mitigate those impacts,” he said.