Road to nowhere 

Montana Rail Link brakes on Bitterroot shipping

The timber industry's dramatic decline in the past few years has generated a series of aftershocks in Ravalli County. The latest came in early October, when Montana Rail Link said it was stopping service on its Bitterroot spur. The announcement came several months after MRL, citing track damage from spring flooding, issued an embargo on train traffic down the line.

Whether the spur will ever reopen is unclear. The clarity of the impact on local business, however, is crystal. MRL's five shipping clients must now find other ways to move grain products and oversized loads of steel to and from their Ravalli County locations.

Julie Foster, executive director of the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority, says the Bitterroot spur closure has added a "huge amount of cost risk" for those businesses. In some cases, companies stand to lose big on recent investments. For example, Foster says, the Selway Corporation spent $100,000 on rail siding upgrades just last year. "Now all the money shelled out for that is for naught."

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MRL spokeswoman Lynda Frost insists the rail company has not abandoned the Bitterroot spur—it will keep exploring the potential for reopening it. But traffic on the line has plummeted over the years. When MRL purchased it, in 1987, traffic was estimated at 1,000 carloads per year. Last year, MRL operated only 99 railcars on the spur. It reports a net loss of $206,000 on the spur last year. Frost says the drop is largely due to the decline of the wood products industry.

A decision to reopen the line in the next few months would depend on several factors, Frost says, including new shipping contracts, the feasibility of repairs to several railroad bridges and any future growth prospects for MRL's Bitterroot customers. An economic rebound for any industry in Ravalli County "would be nothing but good news for us," she says. "We're in the business of transportation. Our fondest wish would be for the economy and the Bitterroot area to get back on its feet."

It's not just shipping customers who are likely to feel the effects of the spur closure. Even Missoula can expect to feel it, Foster says, as MRL customers turn to the most immediate solution. "They have to do what's called 'trans-loading' up in Missoula, and they then come down Reserve Street," Foster says. "Could you imagine taking four semi loads full of grain or four oversized semi loads full of really heavy steel down Reserve Street on a regular basis?"

MRL's discontinuation only extends south of Buckhouse Bridge, meaning that rail traffic through Missoula will continue indefinitely. "For the time being the plan is to continue servicing those customers," Frost says, adding that MRL doesn't anticipate a drop in Missoula rail traffic.

For Missoula, part of the discontinuation's trickle effect is a further examination of the future of MRL's track within the city. The Missoula Urban Transportation District and Mountain Line are currently working on a long-range transit study, and various entities within Missoula County are simultaneously discussing updates for the 2012 Long Range Transportation Plan. Looking ahead 15 to 20 years requires careful consideration of MRL's present and future activity in the city limits.

"It's a very infrequently used piece of rail line right now that is a terrific right-of-way through the heart of Missoula," says Missoula Redevelopment Agency Director Ellen Buchanan. "It runs through two urban renewal districts, and...over the years there's been a lot of discussion about someday having that either as a localized rail between [the] Reserve-Brooks [intersection] and downtown, or a commuter line down into the Bitterroot."

Buchanan says there's "no question" that, should MRL's business in Missoula fall off in a manner similar to the Bitterroot, the city would want to purchase the line. Missoula Public Works Director Steve King adds that local and national interest has already turned to transportation redevelopment. "Any time we can add a feature to the community that assists in redevelopment, may assist in property values or supplies the option for people to look to alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles, that's really a pertinent interest to us," King says.

Missoula continues to work on expanding non-motorized trails along the old Milwaukee rail line, parallel to the Clark Fork River, in the interest of accommodating alternative commuter traffic.

But the city failed to purchase the Milwaukee Line right-of-way when the track shut down, making that a cautionary tale. "If [MRL's] line goes out of service, we don't want to allow it to go the way the Milwaukee Line went and go into private ownership," Buchanan says. "We're in the process right now of buying rights-of-way to get the Milwaukee Trail extended to the west. You don't want to make that mistake again."

The consideration is still hypothetical in Missoula, given that MRL says it will maintain service along the Missoula track for the time being. For the Bitterroot, that moment may come much sooner. Foster says most customers believe that if the service stops, it will not start back up.

Yet even if MRL decides to abandon the spur completely, Foster says, utilizing the track for the public isn't that simple, especially considering the economic troubles that prompted MRL's decision to begin with. "If they did abandon it," she says, "then you have to buy it. And you also have to operate like a railroad, so there's a lot of regulations and, obviously, larger sums of money."

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