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HELENA - Trucking, oil, construction and labor interests lined up Monday to oppose a bill that would require "megaloads" of industrial equipment on Montana highways to obtain a new, special-use permit, saying the loads already are being scrutinized.

They said House Bill 507 sets a bad precedent for business in Montana and could threaten job prospects here, for a Billings company is considering whether it can manufacture the megaload equipment now being made in Korea and destined primarily for Canadian oilfields.

"If you build them in Montana, you're still not going to be able to move them (under this bill)," said John Forkan of the Montana Building and Construction Trades Council. "This is not a piece of legislation to build jobs; this is eight pages of legislation to kill jobs."

Yet supporters of HB507, sponsored by Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, said the measure is needed to protect Montanans and small businesses from the impacts of hauling the massive equipment on the highways and ensure that industry pays the cost.

"Do you stand with the small businesses and truckers that currently operate on these highways?" Zack Porter of the Missoula-based group All Against the Haul asked the House Transportation Committee. "Or do you stand with the multinational corporations that have no regard for the state of Montana?"

Companies are proposing to truck the equipment over Lolo Pass on U.S. Highway 12 from Idaho into Montana and then over other two-lane highways to Alberta, where they're headed to oil development sites in the Canadian tar sands.

HB507, titled the Safe Montana Highway Act, would require any hauler to apply at least one year in advance of the move for a special-use permit. The permit application must include a detailed transportation plan and analyze "cumulative" impacts for more than one load.

Bridges not inspected within a year before would have to be inspected, public hearings would have to be held at least six months before the move, and the applicant would have to pay all costs associated with the move and post a bond to cover those costs.

The state also would be required to deny the permit if the load "cannot be moved without causing significant impacts to existing economic uses of the highways involved."

Justin Walsh, a Missoula-based outfitter on the Blackfoot River, said megaloads using the highway along the river will block turn-outs that his firm uses to load and unload clients.

"This could turn our highways into an industrial corridor," he said. "(The rivers) are far more valuable as a tourism engine than they are as an industrial corridor."

However, Jim Lynch, state Transportation Department director, said some turn-outs would be blocked off only on the day of the haul, and then mostly at night, when the loads are scheduled to move.

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Lynch didn't testify for or against HB507, but did tell the committee he thinks the state's current environmental review laws are adequate to address impacts from the megaload hauls. ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil have agreed to pay any damages caused by the shipping of their equipment and posted bonds of $10 million and $32 million, respectively, he said.

Dave Galt, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, said the oil firms have "gone to extraordinary lengths to work with (the state) to outline what they need to do."

The House committee likely will vote on the measure later this week or next week.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at mike.dennison@lee.net.

 

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