Railroads Promise More Rail Safety Money

Railroads carrying hazardous materials across Minnesota came forward Wednesday with a plan to pay more for safer road crossings and training.

“The railroads plan to step forward and assist beyond that they usually do,” railroad lobbyist John Apitz told House and Senate transportation funding negotiators.

Railroad representatives say they will increase funding for underpasses or overpasses in Moorhead, Coon Rapids and the Prairie Island Indian Community near Red Wing. Democratic legislation called for railroads to pay most of the costs, but the railroads’ plan falls short of that.

Besides the three underpasses or overpasses, high priorities for Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, railroads also laid out procedures to increase information given to public safety officials about hazardous materials moving through the state.

Public safety officials told the committee they are happy with progress made, but say some minor changes still are needed. Democrats also said they are happy railroads have moved toward their position, but stopped short of endorsing the plan.

The conference committee involving transportation talks had not met since early in the legislative session but, with less than three weeks remaining until lawmakers must adjourn for the year, more meetings are planned. Transportation funding is one of the major issues legislators need to resolve.

Rail safety exploded into a major issue in recent years amid reports across North America about derailments involving trains carrying western North Dakota crude oil. Many have resulted in fires and oil leaks.

Almost no oil trains crossed Minnesota in 2005, but up to nine a day traversed the state before the recent oil industry downturn.

Dayton has placed a priority on improving rail safety. While he most often talks about oil trains, many of his proposals also would increase safety for other hazardous material-carrying trains, such as those with ethanol.

He proposed borrowing nearly $70 million for the Moorhead, Coon Rapids and Red Wing crossings. Railroads in all three locations are at the same level as busy roads, but the proposal calls for building rail bridges over the roads or underpasses. All three sets of tracks carry oil trains.

Minnesota lawmakers in recent years have increased rail safety funding, including adding rail and car inspectors, but with separated rail crossings costing up to $30 million each, those projects have not seen money.

Vice President Brian Sweeney of BNSF Railway Co. said his railroad would pay $1.5 million extra for the Moorhead crossing, nearly doubling its usual contribution. Apitz said Canadian Pacific would add $900,000 to the Prairie Island project, also a considerable increase from past figures.

Railroads also offered to fund two more rail inspectors, three short of what Democrats wanted.

They also pledged to increase public safety worker training and to provide them with more information about cargo being hauled through their areas.

Sen. Vicki Jensen, D-Owatonna, said the new contributions railroads promise remain unclear. She asked legislative staff members to provide a full accounting of how much more railroads would pay under their plan.

Public safety organization leaders praised the railroad plan, but said work is not done.

“We have made a lot of progress,” Coon Rapids Fire Chief John Piper said.