Picking up the tab 

Lawmakers debate cost of Montana's megaload corridor

Montana lawmakers again took up the issue of megaload traffic in the state last month, with part of the discussion in the interim focusing on whether to urge the Montana Department of Transportation to identify specific corridors for the oversized shipments. This time, the legislature's Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee had a few rough dollar figures on hand—a cost analysis spreadsheet prepared at the behest of Committee Vice Chair Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, that outlined estimates for permanent mitigations on three potential corridors.

The results of that research, compiled by Legislative Services, ranged widely, with a route from Billings to Sweet Grass comprising the lowest estimate—between $320,000 and $620,000 for permanent infrastructure improvements. But the price tag for changes along the most high-profile route currently used by megaload transport companies, a series of highways connecting Lolo and Sweet Grass, came in at a minimum of $8.5 million, including an estimated $7 million for permanent traffic signal alterations mostly in Missoula.

While the cost differences highlighted in last month's analysis are considerable, the interim committee has found itself focusing on a bigger question: Who would foot the bill? Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, says there have been a number of suggestions raised during the committee's meetings, including putting the burden of investment on the companies shipping those oversize loads. Vice Chair Ballance is amenable to having the state pay up front, so long as those expenses could be recouped through fees charged for megaload permits.

"I'm not in favor of the state paying for it, but the state fronting the money or part of the money might be a solution that makes sense," Ballance says. "There it would depend on how many of these transport loads you could count on, so you'd have to make sure you had some pretty good estimates for how quickly you were going to be able to recoup those costs."

Committee Chair Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, agrees that taxpayers aren't likely to approve of shouldering thousands or even millions of dollars in improvements to accommodate megaloads. She's not even sure identifying a single corridor is such a wise choice. "You just don't know where commerce is going to require that kind of infrastructure," she says, adding that she'd vote against any measure committing state money to such improvements.

For Barrett, the issue of an oversize load corridor requires a much broader consideration of future energy policy. Tying such a discussion—and any monetary investments—too closely to extractive projects like the Canadian tar sands involves potentially high risks. From an economic standpoint, Barrett says, "you don't want to invest in buggy whips."

click to enlarge Megaload, montana, missoula, cost, news, Imperial Oil
  • photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • A megaload destined for Billings navigates traffic signals on Reserve Street in May 2011. A recent cost analysis of potential megaload routes by the Montana Legislature puts the price of replacing such traffic signals in the millions.

"I'd certainly hope that our future involves a lot more renewable energy, a lot more conservation, a lot more non-fossil fuel energy than it does right now," he adds. "So in that regard, wouldn't it be better to build highways that would allow manufacturers of wind turbines to get their wind turbines to the right place?"

As for analyzing rough costs associated with several corridors, Kaufmann is unsure how worthwhile the project was. "There's just so many unknowns on it," she says. In fact, the spreadsheet indicates the $7 million for traffic signal improvements between Lolo and Sweet Grass is "likely inflated." According to the research analyst who completed the data, that figure comes from a 2010 study conducted by Great Falls-based traffic lighting construction firm Montana Lines.

"That was a very fast-tracked estimate for Imperial Oil," says Montana Lines General Manager Trevor Livesay, adding that the estimate factored in replacing the northeast traffic signal at every intersection between Lolo and Bonner with a rotating one.

Livesay acknowledges the figure is probably appreciated due to the time-sensitive nature of the project four years ago. Back then, they were "trying to beat winter," Livesay says, as Imperial Oil had hoped to ship more than 200 megaloads to the Canadian tar sands under its Kearl Module Transportation Plan. The oil company intended to pay for the alterations up front, but its plan fell apart in the face of several legal challenges, creating delays that prompted Imperial Oil to find an alternate route.

"If there is less of a time crunch," Livesay says, "then acceleration could go away, and acceleration is a tangible cost and a real expense."

Ultimately, Kaufmann isn't confident the committee will come up with any recommendations for the 2015 Montana Legislature. The interim so far has been "an opportunity to hear public comment, and we'll make the best recommendations—or not—that we think we've reached in the course of our study," she says. Ballance echoes that skepticism, saying she is "not seeing a piece of legislation that we can bring that's going to solve this problem" but that there could be "some things we can do to work around the edges." Livesay, for one, feels the question of who should invest could have been solved years ago.

"We still have the same problems we did then, and the solution was there, paid for, approved and scheduled in 2010," he says, referring to Imperial Oil's intended investment.

Meanwhile, another load is scheduled to travel from Washington to the Calumet Refinery in Great Falls. The Idaho Transportation Department last week issued a permit for transport company Bigge Crane and Rigging to ship a 311-foot-long, 926,000-pound piece of equipment on a route across the nearly two-mile-long Long Bridge over the Pend Oreille River into Sandpoint. The load will enter Montana on Highway 200 and turn north on Highway 56, passing through the Kootenai National Forest and skirting Bull Lake. From there it will pass through Libby, Kalispell and Columbia Falls before traveling south through the Seeley-Swan Valley back to Highway 200. The load entered Idaho Aug. 10.

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