ITD calls test megaload a ‘success’

Ken Johnson, Kearl module transportation project manager for Imperial Oil, a Canadian affiliate of ExxonMobil, testifies Friday at a contested-case hearing on Boise on the company's proposed megaloads on U.S. Highway 12. (Betsy Russell)
Ken Johnson, Kearl module transportation project manager for Imperial Oil, a Canadian affiliate of ExxonMobil, testifies Friday at a contested-case hearing on Boise on the company's proposed megaloads on U.S. Highway 12. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - A “test module” for proposed megaloads on U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho that made it into Montana this week took weeks to arrive and caused a five-hour power outage and hour-long traffic delay along the way, but state transportation officials and Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil are calling it a success.

“With the exception of the tree branch we clipped out of Lewiston and the guy wire, that move was very well done,” Kenneth Johnson, Kearl module transportation project manager for Imperial Oil, a Canadian affiliation of ExxonMobil, told a state hearing officer Friday.

But Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West, an attorney representing residents and business owners along the route who object to the giant loads, dubbed the test a failure.

“Based on what happened with the test module, they should pack up all their gear and go with a different route,” Lucas told The Spokesman-Review. “They were projecting they would go from Lewiston to Lolo Pass in three nights.” Instead, the trip took more than three weeks. “They knocked out power to 1,300 people. They had traffic delay of an hour.”

The test load, designed to match the tallest, longest and widest of the proposed 200-plus loads, left Lewiston on April 11. In its first night out, it clipped tree branches, and then struck a guy wire to power lines, knocking out power to two Idaho towns, closing the road for an hour and leading to a delay of more than two weeks.

During the delay, 16 utility lines were raised along the route and extensive tree-trimming conducted throughout the scenic highway corridor. Then on April 26, the load traveled more than 100 miles in one night, stopping at a chain-up area at the base of Lolo Pass, where it remained due to bad weather until making the final 35-minute trip to the top of Lolo Pass on May 4.

The proposed permits for the giant loads - the topic of a contested-case hearing before retired Idaho District Judge Duff McKee - forbid delays of traffic exceeding 15 minutes. Because the three-story-high loads are so wide that they take up the whole highway, creating a rolling roadblock, they’re required to pull off every 15 minutes to let traffic pass.

Adam Rush, ITD spokesman, said, “If there’s a delay above 15 minutes, we don’t automatically characterize that as a failure.” Rush said he couldn’t say what would have made the test a failure.

“ITD viewed the test module as a success,” Rush said. “The purpose was to test the traffic control plan and how the plan would function on U.S. 12. I mean, we understand that they may have difficulties that would lead to delays above 15 minutes. That doesn’t necessarily negate the traffic control plan or the transportation plan.”

Lucas said on the night the giant load went more than 100 miles, it “blew through” many of the scheduled turnouts and didn’t follow its transportation plan; company and ITD officials said there was no need to stop when there was no traffic.

Johnson said, “We clearly demonstrated that we could do it in three nights of travel. We had some issues along the way that we corrected.”

The test, he said, was intended to “prove how well we could do it.”

A business group backing the oversize loads issued a statement hailing the test load’s completion of its trip through Idaho. “It did what it was supposed to do,” said Doug Mattoon, executive director of Valley Vision in Lewiston and a member of the group calling itself “Drive Our Economy.” He said, “Those issues have now been identified and corrected.”

Imperial/Exxon wants to haul the big loads across Highway 12 en route to the Alberta oil sands project; they consist of giant modules of oil equipment manufactured in Korea and brought to the Port of Lewiston by barge.

Because of delays in getting the permits, the company is now in the process of cutting 33 of the loads now in Lewiston in half, so they can travel up Highway 95 to Coeur d’Alene, take I-90 into Montana to Butte, and then take I-15 north into Canada. The cut-down loads will be half as tall, but just as wide.

The test module is 24 feet wide, 30 feet high, 208 feet long and weighs about 500,000 pounds. It’s now parked indefinitely at Lolo Hot Springs in Montana, awaiting the outcome of a court hearing there on roadwork needed to allow it to pass through that state without delaying traffic more than 10 minutes.

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