BOISE – A “test module” for proposed oversize loads on U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho made it to Montana this week, but it took weeks to arrive and caused a five-hour power outage and an hourlong traffic delay along the way. Still, state transportation officials and Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil call the test a success.
“With the exception of the tree branch we clipped out of Lewiston and the guy wire, that move was very well done,” Imperial Oil project manager Kenneth Johnson told a state hearings officer Friday. The load 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.
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 on its way to the Kearl Oil Sands project in Alberta. On its first night out, it clipped tree branches and then struck the guy wire.
During the ensuing two-week delay, crews raised 16 utility lines and trimmed trees 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 because of 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 hearing before retired Idaho District Judge Duff McKee, forbid traffic delays exceeding 15 minutes. Because the three-story-high loads are so wide that they take up the entire highway and create 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 that 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. “Those issues have now been identified and corrected,” he said.
The big loads consist of giant modules of oil equipment manufactured in Korea and brought to the Post of Lewiston by barge. They’re destined for use by Imperial Oil, a Canadian affiliate of ExxonMobil.
Because of delays in getting the permits, the company is now in the process of cutting 33 of the loads in half while in Lewiston, so they can travel up Highway 95 to Coeur d’Alene, take Interstate 90 to Butte, and then take Interstate 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.