More than three years have passed since Lakeville residents began challenging the presence of empty rail cars parked near their homes, but they continue to be bothered by them - and wonder whether the cars have become long-term fixtures.

Progressive Rail Inc. told a residential task force in 2009 that the cars weren't in use because of the recession. The Lakeville firm doesn't own the cars, which it keeps on the west side of town, but handles them for other companies on tracks it leases from Canadian Pacific Railway.

That explanation no longer holds up, according to Pam Steinhagen, a resident who's helped organize efforts to get the cars moved.

"Nothing has changed," she said. "The economy is better, but the cars are still there." Progressive occasionally moves them in or out, but the number has remained basically the same at about 350, she said.

Lakeville City Administrator Steve Mielke said Progressive Rail led city officials to believe the rail cars would be gone when the economy picked up, but he believes that's no longer the case.

"In reality it's become a storage location for Progressive Rail's ongoing operations," Mielke said. Federal law permits the cars to be there, so the city can't order the company to remove them, he said.

Dave Fellon, Progressive Rail's president, called Mielke's assessment unfair, and said the cars were still there because, despite some improvement, the economy remains weak.

"Look at the job numbers. This is no different than people being unemployed. These rail cars are unemployed," he said.

U.S. rail shipments have increased from the trough of the recession in 2009, according to the Association of American Railroads. But shipments are still far below the peak of 2006 and down slightly for the first five months of this year compared with 2011. The industry group says the number of cars in storage nationwide has grown for the last eight months.

Regardless of the economic trends, Steinhagen said, the cars, often covered with graffiti, are an eyesore that have hurt property values and made it difficult for area residents to sell their homes. They're also a crime and safety hazard, she said.

Neighbors have called police over the years to report kids climbing into the cars to drink. There are no longer boxcars with doors, but kids climb on top of the covered cars that are now there, she said. "They're like a magnet for them," Steinhagen said. Lakeville Police Chief Tom VonHof said three trespassing incidents have been reported in the last six months.

Mielke said the city and residents have researched how other communities with parked rail cars have solved the problem and found that some have convinced companies to move storage yards to tracks outside of town.

"Unfortunately, that's not really an alternative here," Mielke said.

The most likely solution would be a change in federal laws.

City officials and the residents' group have contacted U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken urging changes. The Lakeville City Council included the issue among its top legislative policy priorities for this year.

"We don't know of any active efforts to change the rules at this time," Mielke said. "Other than acknowledging it as a problem, we haven't seen anything yet at the federal level."

Susan Feyder • 952-746-3282