By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The Montana Senate minority leader is organizing a meeting for Big Sandy residents to talk about the importance of rail service to the community.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, said today he is organizing the community meeting for April 5 at the Big Sandy High School auditorium because of fears people have that the railroad may abandon its line to Big Sandy. The meeting will be attended by a representative of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
"I've been approached several times about what I can do, and I thought, communication is critical," said Tester, who farms west of Big Sandy. "I just thought, there's no time like the present."
Big Sandy-area farmers have said that if the railroad abandons the line, their expenses will increase because they will have to truck grain to Havre. That would increase traffic on the highways, creating congestion and increasing the need for highway repairs, they said.
Thad Willis, who farms near Big Sandy, said Wednesday he is afraid of the impacts if the railroad closes the line.
"We really want to find a solution. It's going to be really hard on our town if they pull out, and it should be a wakeup call for other towns on spur lines," he said.
Tester said BNSF governmental relations director Pat Keim of Helena has confirmed he will be at the April 5 meeting. Keim could not be reached for comment.
BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said today that the status of the Big Sandy line has not changed.
"The Big Sandy line is under study and the future will be determined by future demands," he said.
Melonas said BNSF will be able to answer questions people have at the Big Sandy meeting.
Randy Olstad, manager of the Archer Daniel Midland-Cenex Harvest States elevators in Havre and Big Sandy, said today his company has not requested any trains to go to Big Sandy to pick up grain this year. The last train for Big Sandy was requested in October.
The rates BNSF offers to pick up grain at the Havre elevator with high-speed loading make it cheaper to ship the grain to Havre by truck than to request smaller trains to pick it up in Big Sandy, he said.
Olstad, whom Tester invited to the meeting, said he is waiting for authorization from the company to attend.
Harlem and Rudyard also have high-speed shuttle elevators. The railroad generally uses 110-car trains to load grain at those facilities, compared with 52-car or smaller trains at smaller facilities like the Big Sandy elevator.
Tester said that since farmers won't be working in the fields in early April, it should give them the opportunity to come to the meeting.
Tester also has invited Public Service Commissioner Greg Jergeson and representatives of the Montana Department of Transportation to the meeting. MDT Deputy Director Jim Curry has confirmed that he will be at the meeting, and Director Dave Galt may attend, Tester said.
He said U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg's office has confirmed it will have a representative at the meeting. Tester also expects that representatives of Sens. Conrad Burns and Max Baucus will attend.
Craig Erickson of Bear Paw Development Corp. is scheduled to facilitate the meeting.