The county is embarking on a big initiative to extend railroad connections into its sprawling industrial park west of Butte, saying it could entice more companies to locate there and grow the state and local economy.
Butte-Silver Bow and the Port of Montana are now seeking formal proposals from engineering firms to help design and analyze rail extensions, but the overall project has been on the Tax Increment Financing Industrial District’s wish list for several years.
The board has earmarked $5 million to see it through, including design and construction, though the final price tag could be higher or lower.
“It would certainly make our parcels more attractive,” Todd Tregidga, chairman of the TIFID Board, said Friday. “We can definitely feel from the marketplace that there’s a demand for parcels directly served by rail and not just have it nearby.”
The Port of Montana, located in the northern part of the Montana Connections industrial park, is already the only place in the state where two Class I railroads are located. Butte is also the only city in Montana where two major interstates — I-15 and I-90 — intersect.
But while the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroads serve the port, there are only two extensions into the rest of the industrial park. One is owned by Scoular Grain, and the other leads to the now-closed Solvay phosphorous plant.
Other businesses in the park can load products or materials onto trucks and put them on railroad cars at the port, of course. REC Silicon has done such “transloading” extremely well for more than 20 years, said TIFID administrator Kristen Rosa.
While the rail lines at the Port are a “tremendous asset,” Rosa said, spurs into the rest of the industrial park would be a big plus.
“To date, we do not have anywhere that we can put somebody and say it’s already served,” Rosa said. “Our goal is to create a plan so that when that person (company) comes and they are really in need of rail service, we have it there.”
The TIFID has $13 million to $15 million in reserves. Like all tax-increment districts, property taxes from new developments in the area are captured so they can be reinvested there instead of being doled out to all other local government units and schools.
Until recently, however, the TIFID lacked an available tract of land needed for new rail spurs. That changed when $30 million in upgrades to the county’s Metro Sewer Plant were completed last year.
Before the upgrades, the plant sent some of its effluent water to a 100-acre area in the TIFID that was used to grow turf grass. That sod could then be transported to other public places. The newer plant takes certain nutrients out of the water so it doesn’t need a secondary place to go.
“So the sod farm became available to us at the industrial park,” Rosa said. “Now we have the land and we have room for what we believe is great rail access.”
That access, she said, would be the only place in Montana where a business could locate and have direct connection to two major railroad lines right at its doorstep.
Tregidga said the potential payoff has already been demonstrated, since some ventures who have expressed interest in the park have asked about direct rail connections.
The deadline for submitting proposals and qualifications to the county for engineering and analyzing rail extension is 5 p.m. Sept. 7. There is no timeline yet on the overall project.