ByTim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is closing its loading facility in Shelby.
BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said Tuesday the railroad will close the intermodal loading facility on May 28 due to declining use.
Shelby Mayor Larry Bonderud said Tuesday that the railroad has been phasing out use of the ramp since 1998, so it will only cut a few jobs in the community. But it means that companies will have to truck their products much farther to load them on the railroad, he said.
The facility is used to load freight, including semitrailers, containers of freight to be transported by land, and containers of freight to be loaded on ships to be transported overseas.
Bonderud said many Montana companies use the ramp both to send and receive freight. It impacts agricultural producers who use the ramp to send ag-related products like specialty seeds overseas to countries like China, he said.
"Certainly the agricultural industry in northern Montana has used that ramp, and to lose that opportunity moves them farther from the market," he said.
Those who use it will have to truck their products much farther, to Billings or Spokane, Wash., to load them on the railroad, Bonderud said.
"The job loss here is minimal," Bonderud said. "But the potential that that ramp has for job creation was always very high and the potential of the ramp was never fully developed by the railroad."
Anthony Flagg, president of Pasta Montana, said his company was interested in using the Shelby facility, but will keep trucking its product directly to Seattle and Tacoma, Wash.
"I'm disappointed it's closing because we had hoped to use it," he said. "We've been trying to get a rate. They never gave us a quote."
Flagg said he thinks using the railroad would have been more efficient and could have saved Pasta Montana money, "but apparently the railroad doesn't want to do that business."
He said the reason the ramp is closing seems apparent.
"It's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy," Flagg said. "If you don't give people rates, you won't get the business."
Erik Iverson, chief of staff for Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said today the closure is indicative of the railroad's attitude toward Montana. The railroad has no competition, and can do what it wants, he said.
"There's nothing we can do. We are literally held captive by BNSF," Iverson said.
BNSF said in a letter to Rehberg, who sits on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, that it can start using the loading facility again if the demand for its use increases.
Iverson said Rehberg has been in contact with BNSF to see if the company will reconsider closing the facility.
"We need more competition and this is just going to exacerbate the situation," Iverson said. "It's not encouraging news. I think it's a sign of the times."
Rehberg and Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., are sponsoring bills in Congress that would place stricter regulation on railroads in areas where they have little or no competition.
J.P. Donovan, spokesman for Burns, said the senator is going to meet with representatives of BNSF to discuss the Shelby closure.
"We are trying to see what way we can help the folks in Shelby as best we can," he said.
Bonderud said he thinks the railroad wants to close the Shelby ramp because it doesn't want to stop trains running from Chicago to the West Coast to load or unload in Montana. He said 50 freight trains typically go through Shelby each day.
"That Hi-Line railroad is so busy they don't want to stop those trains and serve those ramps," he said.
Bonderud said the decline in use of the ramps, which opened in 1987, began after Burlington Northern Inc. and the Santa Fe Pacific Corp. merged in 1995. Before that, he said, use of the ramps was increasing.
Once the railroads merged, Bonderud said, BNSF started changing its freight rates and loading policies and use of the ramp started to decline.
"The railroad was the main factor in the decrease," Bonderud said.
Melonas did not return calls asking for a reply to Bonderud's comments.
Bonderud said the Port of Northern Montana in Shelby offered to purchase the loading facility from BNSF and operate it, but the railroad has not shown interest in selling it.
"We're willing to step up and operate that ramp it keep it open for all of Montana for shipping purposes," he said. "It just points out that they just want to close that ramp. We think that, properly operated, it can be a successful venture."
In response to questions from a reporter, Melonas said in a voice-mail that the declining use of the facilities and projected future use does not warrant keeping the loading ramp open. BNSF will work with the contractor that operates the facility to resolve any personnel issues, and will work with Shelby on economic development issues.
Melonas' voice-mail, left Tuesday evening on a reporter's phone, did not address other questions asked him by the Havre Daily News earlier in the day, such as how many employees would be affected and where people would have to go to load their freight.
He did not respond to telephone calls from a reporter this morning.