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Finger-pointing hinders track, road repairs

Posted by: Kelly Smith under Complaint sagas Updated: April 10, 2012 - 9:40 AM

If you missed Sunday's Whistleblower article, here it is. To add to the discussion, go to the original article.

 

Rotting wooden railroad ties and crumbling asphalt have long created a bumpy ride for south Minneapolis drivers and bicyclists traveling E. 35th Street near the grain elevators off Hiawatha Avenue.

But while minor patches were made last week, it's not clear when the road hazard will get a permanent repair. Doing so will require cooperation between three companies and the city, but for the moment, the groups are pointing fingers at each other over who will shoulder the biggest burden of the estimated $400,000 cost.

The seven sets of railroad tracks crossed by 35th Street are owned by General Mills, Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Minnesota Commercial Railroad -- with the city owning areas on both sides of the tracks. The railroad, which is coordinating work among the companies, and the city disagree on how much both sides owe.

Wayne Hall Jr., director of operations and industrial development for Minnesota Commercial Railroad, said it's up to the city to request the concrete work and pay a majority of the money.

"The city has a large obligation," Hall said. "There are four different ownerships there. It's just a matter of working together."

But City Council Member Gary Schiff said the three companies should make the repairs. He said the city has received dozens of complaints the last 10 years about the railroad crossing's disrepair from drivers and bikers.

Ed Dillon, an avid bicyclist who lives off 35th Street, said the crossing was a "significant danger" because wheels could get stuck in the ruts.

"It's kind of absurd that it's such an awful situation," Dillon said. "It can't be much [money to fix] compared to other things in the city."

Last month, the Minnesota Commercial Railroad received 20 to 25 complaints, Hall said, after Schiff encouraged residents to voice their discontent. As a result, last week, workers with the city and the three companies removed rotting wood timbers and filled potholes and spaces next to the tracks with asphalt. The total cost of the repairs wasn't clear, but Hall said the railroad's share of work to repair one of the seven tracks cost $5,100.

It's not the concrete fix that residents like Dillon want. Last week, cars still slowed as they rocked up and down, hitting the bumps and crevices of the crossing.

"Most drivers will not notice a significant difference," Schiff said. "It's still a bumpy ride. The neighborhood still needs the long-term solution."

Heidi Hamilton, the city's deputy public works director, said a similar situation at 32nd Street was swiftly smoothed with concrete in 2006 thanks to a one-time federal grant. The 35th Street crossing doesn't qualify for federal aid, she said, but discussions about finding money for a long-term fix are just beginning.

"To coordinate everybody's budgets and schedules, it's a challenge," she said.

The railroad collaborates with several metro area counties and the state when it rebuilds crossings. This time, though, Hall said city leaders never approached the railroad about installing concrete. Instead, the first time they heard about the issue was through complaints referred by Schiff.

"There was a lack of communication," Hall said. "We work great with municipalities. This one kind of upset us the way it was handled."

For mechanics at Alexander's Import Auto Repair, located next to the tracks, the rough crossing isn't all bad. They've collected half a dozen wheel covers that have shaken off cars rattling over the tracks, owner Dan Swenson said.

"We're relieved," he said of the possibility of a smoother commute, "but it takes some business from us."

kelly.smith@startribune.com • Twitter: @kellystrib

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