There was standing room only at Monday night’s Bozeman City Commission meeting, with around a hundred people in the audience for a discussion about the potential for more coal trains to chug through town.
A representative from the railroad and the head of a citizen action group gave presentations to the commission and dozens of people commented on the issue during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Ultimately, Mayor Sean Becker told the crowd the commission is likely to take up the issue again at a future meeting.
Currently, 15 trains rumble through Bozeman every day. But a plan to build coal-exporting facilities on the West Coast and ship coal across Montana to those seaports could double the amount of trains.
Members of the Bozeman Community Coal Action Group asked the commission to sign a resolution calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consider the impacts of the added train traffic on Bozeman during an environmental review of the proposed West Coast ports.
“This resolution does not call for stopping the trains,” said group representative Faith Rose. “It calls for study of cumulative impacts … this is the only way that the impacts to Bozeman will ever be considered.”
She said more coal trains would cause pollution, noise, and traffic congestion, health concerns.
Jim Lewis, director of sales and marketing for Montana Rail Link, which operates the railroad through Bozeman, asked the commission to sign a resolution backing increased train traffic instead.
He said if the federal government decides to study the impacts on each community the trains pass through that would effectively kill plans to build the ports altogether. The coal companies will go elsewhere, shipping the coal out of somewhere like British Columbia, he said, when they could be providing jobs and creating tax revenue in Montana.
During public comment, most people spoke against added train traffic, though, some local business leaders expressed support.
Dr. Alan Wanderer said coal dust and diesel emissions from the trains would increase the risk of asthma and cancer.
Rabbi Ed Stafman said the Gallatin Valley Interfaith Association, a coalition of local religious organizations, opposes coal trains coming through town.
“As pastoral leaders, we can’t stand by quietly as the health of people and God’s creation is compromised,” Stafman said.
Will Swearingen, director of Montana State University’s TechLink Center, said high-tech companies might not continue to locate in Bozeman if there’s significant coal train traffic as it could affect the city’s outdoor recreation and quality of life.
Citizens said the trains would negate work volunteers have done on Bozeman’s Climate Action Plan.
An anesthesiologist worried that on-call doctors would have to wait at train crossings on their way to emergencies at the hospital and that people would die during those valuable minutes.
Residents said they don’t want their taxes to go toward road improvements needed to accommodate more trains.
On the other side of the issue, Don Cowles, of Wild West Shirt Co. in Bozeman, said his business is located along the railroad tracks on North Rouse Avenue and he has never had a problem.
“I don’t think there’s a person in this room that’s impacted more than I am and my business and employees,” Cowles said.
He said he has never seen any coal dust come off the trains or on his building. The train’s horn is only a small inconvenience for a few seconds and he said he rarely has to wait at train crossings.
Gary Gullickson, government relations official for Mystery Ranch backpacks, said his company is also located along the tracks. He said he doesn’t see coal dust and doesn’t wait long at railroad crossings either.
Lewis, of MRL, asked the commission to work with the railroad to study any potential impacts of the coal trains and to mitigate them.
Lynda Frost, spokeswoman for MRL, said the right thing for the city to do would be to “allow a Montana company to work with Montana people to find a solution during a time when I think we all want less government.”
Commissioner Cyndy Andrus asked for specifics about what MRL would do.
Lewis said he would meet with community members and develop an action plan. He said the city could look into establishing “quiet zones” similar to those in Billings where train whistles aren’t sounded in the downtown area.
Lewis said the railroad could study wait times at crossings and look at ways to reduce them.
Commissioner Chris Mehl said even if MRL sticks to its goal of having a wait time of 10 minutes or less, that vehicles could be waiting for a total of more than five hours per day if train traffic doubles to 30 trains per day.
Mehl asked if MRL would be willing to pay to build an overpass where the railroad crosses North Rouse Avenue. Lewis said that’s not an expense the railroad company typically covers.
Deputy Mayor Jeff Krauss said Bozeman has already experienced double the train traffic when a rail line that runs across northern Montana was closed. He asked Lewis if any problems were reported at that time and Lewis said no.
“I appreciate the railroad coming through here,” Krauss said. “I’ve always appreciated the railroad coming through here since 1883 when the railroad got here.”
Amanda Ricker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2628.