BY PAOLO CISNEROS
THE SHERIDAN PRESS
SHERIDAN — If the development of West Coast shipping ports goes on to allow energy companies to transport larger volumes of Powder River Basin coal to energy-hungry Asian markets, Sheridan County stands to see an enormous increase in railway traffic.Left unchanged, the existing railroad through Sheridan city limits would become even busier, meaning traffic could slow and energy companies might be unable to maximize profits.
But a study commissioned by local economic development group Forward Sheridan has identified a set of possible additions to the county’s railway infrastructure that would allow for increased traffic — and the economic benefits it might bring — while avoiding an increase in congestion for Sheridan commuters. The six-month feasibility study was executed in conjunction with Tom Anzia, principal at the transportation-engineering firm Felsburg Holt & Ullevig.
Anzia appeared alongside Forward Sheridan Executive Director Jay Stender to address a crowd of about 20 people at the county courthouse Thursday on what can be learned from the study. “Our goal at Forward Sheridan is to enable Sheridan County and the state of Wyoming to continue (using) coal as an element of our economic background,” Stender said. “This is a five- or 10- or 15-year dream, but we’ve got to get going.” Currently, about 30 trains pass through Sheridan every day. But the potential of shipping larger amounts of coal to Asia could spur production at the recently permitted Youngs Creek Mine and mean heavier shipments from existing mines throughout the Powder River Basin. The Forward Sheridan study maps out several routes between the current Decker sub-line —a route that runs North-South from the Montana’s Decker Mine to Wyarno Road — and Big Horn County (Montana) that are flat enough to support construction of a new railroad. The four routes highlighted in the study range in length from 10.4 miles to 14.3 miles and come with a variety of challenges for planners, including unique environmental impacts and potential effects on isolated coal deposits.
Stakeholder comments from the Wyoming Department of Transportation, state agencies and some coal interests will be included in the final draft of the report. If a new track is eventually constructed, the current line is slated to remain intact. Stender said the existing track could be used for the staging and queuing of trains while allowing for more direct travel on the alternative route. Forward Sheridan is set to meet with representatives of BNSF Railway — the Texas-based company that owns and operates the railroad — and state officials in early November to review the study and discuss the project’s next phase and how it might be funded in the future. In total, Forward Sheridan estimates that building a new section of railroad would cost between $87.5 million and $162.5 million. City officials are in the early stages of conducting a separate study examining the possible socioeconomic effects of a reroute. City planning director Robert Briggs said his office is currently accepting proposals from firms interested in conductingthe study.