Proponents of mega-loads cite potential for economic growth

Poll on how Idaho residents feel about shipments unlikely to change many minds

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

Sunday, October 31, 2010
Kevin Lincoln worked for a dozen years at Twin City Foods before he decided making his career at the downtown Lewiston pea processor was a risky choice.

Lincoln, a 44-year-old Lewiston resident, became a mail carrier in Clarkston. Soon after he did, the plant suspended its operations in 2005, leaving 45 people out of work.

That experience has shaped Lincoln’s support for allowing oversized loads to travel on U.S. Highway 12. He worries opposition to that type of commerce could cost Idahoans jobs.

“Part of the reason that Twin City Foods went out of business was supposedly because they couldn’t get any trucks to come to Lewiston because of our highway system,” Lincoln said.

Lincoln isn’t alone in his stance. He was among 35 percent of Idahoans surveyed in a recent Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. poll who favor mega-load shipments on U.S. Highway 12. Imperial Oil and ConocoPhillips want to haul more than 200 loads that would take up two lanes of traffic from Lewiston to the Montana border in the coming year. The poll was conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based firm for the Lewiston Tribune and six other newspapers that circulate in Idaho.

A greater percentage, 36 percent, are opposed and 29 percent were undecided. The results showed broader resistance to the loads in northern Idaho where 45 percent were against, 39 percent favored them and 16 percent were undecided.

How Idahoans’ beliefs about the mega-loads might affect the business climate in Idaho is a matter of debate.

“I doubt (businesses) would look at one specific statistic from a study on a specific issue,” said Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry in Boise. “They would look at the broad picture. … Idaho is a pretty friendly place to be.”

Like LaBeau, Barbara Turner, a 67-year-old Grangeville-area resident who supports the loads, would be surprised if the poll results had any influence on economic development in Idaho.

“This is only little old Idaho County here in north central Idaho,” said Turner, who participated in the poll.

Bibiana Nertney, a spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Commerce, agrees with LaBeau.

“This poll shows the state is working with both sides to ensure our existing businesses don’t suffer and that our citizenry is safe and that we bring economic dollars to the state,” Nertney said. “It is a balance. I think people would say we’re doing our due diligence.”

People on both sides of the issue cite concerns about the health of the economy as a reason for their position. Peter Grubb, who operates a restaurant and resort that offers rafting trips on the Lochsa, is one of the three people who initiated litigation before Idaho’s Supreme Court that has stranded four ConocoPhillips loads at the Port of Lewiston since the middle of August.

One reason Grubb has concerns about the oversized loads is the effect construction on U.S. Highway 12 in 2009 had on his ventures. “Road construction on Highway 12 has created a serious problem and nuisance for River Dance Lodge and our guests and employees,” Grubb wrote in a sworn statement filed in the case.

“The construction activities have included traffic delays as well as additional traffic, and loud noises at night, that guests have complained about,” Grubb wrote. “Our business revenues have declined substantially in terms of both overnight guests and cafe business, which I believe is due in a large part to the Highway 12 activities, since our bookings on trips in other areas are up.”

Just looking at the revenue of ConocoPhillips and Imperial Oil creates an incomplete picture of the potential for job creation, said David Doeringsfeld, manager of the Port of Lewiston.

In the future, other Port of Lewiston customers with oversized loads might need fabrication of their equipment to happen once the loads reach Idaho, creating opportunities for welders, electricians and other technicians in high-paying fields, Doeringsfeld said. The oversized loads are generating national publicity about how goods can be barged up the Snake and Columbia rivers from the Pacific Ocean and trucked from Lewiston inland on Highway 12.

That, over time, will attract more manufacturers to the region because they’ll realize they can inexpensively import whatever raw materials they need and ship their finished products, Doeringsfeld said.

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.