In yet another clash between a railroad and a local community, plans by Canadian Pacific Railway to expand its St. Paul switching yard to make room for 2-mile-long trains are raising alarm with neighbors and environmental advocates.
The railroad, hoping to make the yard more efficient and modern, wants to lengthen five tracks and has already added a sixth at its switching area near the Mississippi River. The area, known as the Dunn Yard, is near Hwy. 61 on the east edge of Pig’s Eye Lake — which is fed by an inlet from the river — and Pig’s Eye Lake Regional Park. The plan calls for filling in 6⅓ acres of wetlands.
But neighbors are concerned that the plan poses too many unanswered questions, and fear it could add congestion and noise and potentially harm the park.
Though surrounded by the rail yard, a sewage treatment plant, a grain elevator and other industries along the river, the park is a 1,159-acre natural oasis that is habitat to Blanding’s turtles, a threatened species in the state. It’s also home to the Pig’s Eye Island Heron Rookery Scientific Area, one of the largest urban heron and egret refuges in the Upper Midwest and site of several established eagle’s nests.
But that is only part of the concern. Filling in the wetland could disrupt the river’s flood plain, and the railroad’s plan to mitigate the loss of the wetlands has raised questions.
The expansion also threatens to render unfeasible a key part of St. Paul’s Great River Passage plan. That plan, years in the making, is a guide to development of the city’s 17-mile river corridor and calls for the park to remain in its natural state, but with added trails and greater access for canoeing and kayaking.
“We know what they’re planning and what we have planned cannot coexist,” said Kathy Lantry, president of the St. Paul City Council, who represents the southeast part of the city. “Somebody’s plan is going to have to be amended.”
Lantry said she has not taken a position on the railroad’s plan, but neighborhood opposition is intense.
“Part of what I’ve been hearing is an offshoot of what’s been happening over the past several years,” she said, referring to complaints about yard noise that has intensified as rail traffic has increased, in large measure because of the oil boom in western North Dakota.
The metallic shriek of brakes has become particularly grating. “It’s the squeaking and squealing that’s really extraordinary,” Lantry said.
Lantry and Betsy Leach, executive director of the District 1 Community Council, said the rail yard has been part of the neighborhood for decades, and residents recognize its need and value. But the expansion plan poses too many unanswered questions.
“For example, we don’t know what it’s going to do to groundwater — there are wells for private homes nearby,” Leach said. And the proposed track extension would put tracks closer to homes along Hwy. 61 and Point Douglas Road.
Leach is hopeful that long-standing noise complaints will be addressed by the railroad as part of the approval process. Beyond that, she added, residents also have expressed concern about the danger posed by oil-carrying trains running so close to the river, concerns that increase with more train traffic.
Among the environmental groups to raise issues with the project is Friends of the Mississippi River. Besides risks to the fragile habitat, the impact of filling in the wetland on the flood capacity of the river hasn’t been fully studied, said Alicia Uzarek, policy advocate for the group. And the plan calls for installing a wall between the lake and the tracks, impeding the flood plain.
Railroad needs room
When the yard was built in the 1950s, it was state of the art. But locomotives and the technology of rail yard operations have greatly improved since. The yard was built to handle trains that are 7,000 feet without having to split their loads. But now the average train length has grown to 10,000 feet — nearly 2 miles.
Because the tracks are shorter than the trains, more splitting and switching are required, resulting in more noise. Locomotives also burn more fuel.
The yard expansion plan is part of Canadian Pacific’s decision to reorganize its rail network to be more efficient, said Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the railroad.
The plan, if approved, would result in less congestion, fewer idling locomotives and fewer switching operations, he said.
More than 110 trains and 10,000 rail cars pass through southeastern St. Paul on a typical day, and that number is growing every year. While BNSF Railway runs the most trains through the area, Canadian Pacific accounts for about one-third of them, with 15 trains using the yard and 17 trains passing through daily on average, Greenberg said.
At Dunn Yard, many of the cars filled with commodities are split off from the trains. Their load is then reconfigured before the cars and trains move on to other destinations. Canadian Pacific says that’s why it needs longer tracks.
Greenberg said the railroad aims to balance environmental concerns with its need to expand and has responded to concerns raised by the plan’s environmental review.
An environmental assessment work sheet has been prepared, and a decision will be made by Thursday on whether a more detailed environmental impact statement will be required, said Josh Williams, a St. Paul city planner.
That decision, which rests with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, will be based on advice from officials in the city’s Planning and Economic Development Department, state rules and public comments in response to the work sheet.
The project also requires a slew of permits from city, state and federal agencies.