A sea of transportation troubles…

by Jay Stevens

Keila Szpaller of the Missoulian related the recent meeting of the city’s Transportation Policy Coordinating committee, which mulled congestion on Highway 93, from Missoula to Florence.

The committee, which looks at transportation in a regional context, heard an update on a state study of U.S. Highway 93 from Florence to Missoula. The problem is congestion. Drivers run into traffic hiccups around Lolo, and they meet full-fledged jams north of Lolo and on the south side of Missoula, said an HKM Engineering consultant.

But consultant Darryl James said some of people’s favorite fixes, such as a train, cost the most money – and they don’t yield high results. Neither do some other options, such as a carpool lane.

Now I don’t commute daily on 93, so I probably haven’t seen the traffic at its worst, but I don’t see any advantage to a carpool lane. Since the added lanes were built, there hasn’t been much traffic slow-up.

The real problem, IMHO, is figuring out a way to get people out of their cars and into transit options. I think James is right that – right now – light rail may be too much expense for too little yield. But oil isn’t going to stay at $100 a barrel…it’s going to be more expensive. And you can bet your sweet *ss there will eventually be some sort of tax on carbon emissions, too. And the Bitterroot is growing – fast. We need to come up with a solution that will reliably and relatively inexpensively transport people from the Bitterroot to Missoula, now and into the future.

(Stacy Rye on discounting rail: “Cost comparisons were not available, but Rye said she did not want to just pay ‘lip service’ to rail. ‘I think it is a viable alternative,’ said Rye.”)

So…what say you, faithful b’birders? Rail, or not to rail?


  1. I’m with you, Jay, about the promise of light rail. But the train is just part of the solution. Yes, it gets you to town, but it doesn’t get you anywhere else. If, during the workday, you need to run an errand, you’re hamstrung by Mountain Line’s bus schedule. It simply takes too long to get anywhere. Missoula’s growing, but I don’t think the train will be seen as workable until it’s part of a larger public transportation system that really works for the way people live.

  2. petetalbot

    Indeed, Michael, any sort of rail system would have to be integrated into a whole new approach to transportation in Missoula. My understanding is that dealing with Highway 93 congestion is just part of the plan.

    It’s too bad that “cost comparisons aren’t available.” I’m guessing, though, that if you take all the money that’s been dumped into Highway 93 over the last decade, add the cost of gas, vehicle wear and tear, safety issues, plus a bunch of intangibles, then you could probably build a freakin’ monorail.

    Add a full-service beverage car and maybe some snacks (cocktail wienies, anyone?) and you’ve got yourself a hit. Great for the tourists, too.

  3. airbo

    I live in town, a close enough distance to ride a bike to work. For me the problem is with time managment. I have to be at work at 8:30 am. I have 1 hour for lunch. I need to eat and I can pack a lunch, but I also have to take my dog for a noon walk (I am the only one with thumbs in our household). If I ride my bike to work, it takes 15-20 minuites each way. This only leaves 20-30 minuites to get the dog duties and lunch thing done. I have to ride like hell to get back to work on time. I don’t mind how I smell, but others might, and I work in an professional office environment—so there are expectations. So, for me the car is the way that works for work. The funny thing is I drive verry little on my days off from work. Part of the problem is that my work is not flexable about the hours of operation. We are open from 9-5. I don’t see that changing. I guess I need to get a stay at home partner (with thumbs) or get rid of the dog if I am going to be green enough–not to fall out of grace.

  4. It’s interesting you bring up your specific issues with PT, airbo. Because after all, when gas starts to mount, and carbon taxes come crashing, it means we’ll probably have to change the way we do things on a daily basis.

    A lot of time I advocate for policies that would mean lifestyle change. And a lot of political opponents interpret that advocacy as a judgement of their particular choices. It’s not. H*ll I drove to work today because I had to drop off the kids at school, then go to the dentists.

    And there I was driving through town, soaking up the sun, listening to the tunes, and thinking, “damn, this is fine…” I like my car! I like driving!

    I don’t know how to answer anyone’s specific problems. But they exist. And it’s the little details that stand in our way. We like our cars. We like doing things they way we do. It’s convenient, it’s the way we’ve always done things.

    So how do we implement much needed change — after all, so much is at risk — in our daily lives, so quickly?

    I think one of the reasons we take to trains to solve these problems is that they’re inherently cool. IMHO, it’s an incentive to commute “green-ly” (?).

  5. Jim Lang

    What people fail to take into account is that with rail, people have choices that they wouldn’t have otherwise, e.g. living in Lolo and working in Missoula or vice versa but not owning a car….

  6. goof houlihan

    Implement as much change in your daily life as you wish.

    But leave my daily life the hell alone.

    I don’t need anyone to sanctify my marriage, or my commute.

  7. Short Seller

    “But oil isn’t going to stay at $100 a barrel…it’s going to be more expensive. ”

    Bet on that and lose your shirt. Crude will be below $75 in less than a year and below $50 in three years.

  8. Light rail is very expensive, but I like to know that at least one person on city council is taking a careful look at it. Who knows?

    There’s another positive thing about light rail that is not always thrown into the calculations: since the rail line is fixed, it allows for real estate development along the corridor – at the stops. That can be a substantial.

  9. petetalbot

    Whoa, Short Seller, I’d like to see your crystal ball! Crude below $75 within the year, below $50 in three years? Are we talking barrels here or gallons? I’d love to believe you but all the evidence I’ve seen points to oil going higher, not lower. You know something I don’t?

  10. Short Seller

    Yeah, I do know something you don’t know: Commodity markets are cyclical.

    I have seen crude oil at $3 and then at $50 and then at $8 and then at $100. I have seen energy conservation come and go, and I have seen guys like you wiped out by the thousands.

  11. Jim Lang

    “Commodity markets are cyclical.”

    Is that true in the long term when the commodity is finite and non-renewable?

  12. I have seen crude oil at $3 and then at $50 and then at $8 and then at $100. I have seen energy conservation come and go, and I have seen guys like you wiped out by the thousands.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but the earlier cycles were largely political or supplier-controlled, right? But with third-world demand spiking and supply plateauing, seems even without a political push to add tax to carbon-producing fuels, the market is trending towards higher prices…

  13. JC

    Sure commodities are cyclical, but even short sellers take it in the rear when they can’t accurately predict the ups and downs.

    And predicting oil commodity cycles is like predicting the strength and location of the next hurricane. Oil is probably the most unpredictable commodity out there, as you have to factor in things like global climate, political unrest, rising sea levels, federal regulation, hurricane and tornado intensity, earthquakes, presidential victors, vp choices, scandals etc.

    You get the picture. Anybody who thinks oil will ever drop below $50 is delusional. $75-80, maybe. $125-130 peak in two years, yes. War with Iran, $150+.

  14. Short Seller

    No need to panic. In inflation adjusted dollars, we are only just now getting back to 1980 crude oil prices.

    The last time I heard somebody say prices can only go higher it was a real estate agent talking.

  15. JC

    Ya, and just which index are you using to toss around those inflation numbers? One that doesn’t include the price of oil, or housing, or health care? Doesn’t look at the purchasing power of the minimum wage? Sometimes the tail wags the dog.

    Even if you want to believe some of the numbers showing that oil prices are approaching 1980 levels (in 2006 dollars), then you might want to look at the fact that the purchasing power of the minimum wage ($3.10/hr) in 1980 would be equivalent to us having a minimum wage of $8/hr (in 2007). In other words, a minimum wage worker has 25% less purchasing power than they did in 1980.

    Add in higher than average inflated housing and health care prices, and it all begins to take on a new perspective of what poverty in America is all about, in relation to trying to develop transportation plans for a populace that has significantly lower ability to pay for fuel.

    Reaganomics at its best.

    And I think the only one that needs to panic about oil futures is the one who shorted the market thinking oil was going to get back to $50.

  16. Short Seller

    My thesis is simply that commodity prices rise and fall, and that anyone who thinks the price of a particular commodity will always go higher is a fool.

    As for your blather about the minimum wage, house prices, health care costs, poverty and purchasing power—go tell it to somebody who cares.

  17. As for your blather about the minimum wage, house prices, health care costs, poverty and purchasing power—go tell it to somebody who cares.

    We are! SS, you’re an anomoly if you don’t care about these things. Most of our readers tune in for a little chat about the stuff that actually impact their daily lives, not some “thesis” of dubious merit.

    You might have a point with biological commodities, where growers adjust supply based on demand (tho’ I’m sure some might dispute even that); but we’re talking about oil, which is a finite commodity, but with demand increasing exponentially.

    Of course, any over-simplistic theory about prices is bound to fail. You’re either lucky or unlucky when you play the market, IMHO.

  18. petetalbot

    Yo, Short Seller, stay in touch. Maybe a little wager here. If, as you claim, oil will be below $50/barrel in three years, I’ll come pick you up in my Hummer, we’ll go somewhere and I’ll buy you a beer. I have a feeling, though, you’ll be picking me up in your Prius and springing for that brew.

  19. JC

    “My thesis is simply that commodity prices…” blah, blah, blah.

    This thread is about transportation planning, which needs to occur no matter what the price of oil is, or how much you may or may not make off of it.

    If you think that my talk about how transportation planning impacts certain demographics is blather, well then, maybe there’s nothing here for you.

    Indeed, as Jay mentioned, those issues are of great interest to most of the people who participate in this blog, and, it seems, to a building majority of Americans.

  20. Short Seller

    Here’s my last piece of advice for all you “planners”: When everybody is paddling on the same side of the canoe, it is about to tip over.

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