On Tuesday, Minnesota Commercial Railway issued a statement responding to comments from Minneapolis City Council member Gary Schiff in Sunday's Whistleblower column. Below is their statement in full.
Grade Crossing infrastructure improvements and repairs until recent budget cutbacks was largely funded by the federal government , and state and local governments, recognizing that as is the case with 35th Avenue, it’s the vehicular traffic on the road that causes the wear and tear on the grade crossings – not the rail traffic. Budget cutbacks from all these sources have occurred in recent years. The Minnesota Regional Railroad Association and the rail industry along with many Minnesota governmental authorities have been working with the Minnesota Legislature this session to restore sources of funding.
In the case of 35th Avenue, additional road traffic has occurred due to a nearby Hiawatha Light Rail line station plus upgrades and additional added capacity of Hiawatha Avenue (a state roadway), which both were completed a few years ago.
The local councilman’s suggestion that railroads and its customers pay for the crossing is misplaced. Railroads and their customers, where appropriate, have always contributed to grade grossing repairs and upgrades, but because it’s the road traffic which causes wear and tear in almost all cases, governmental authorities also have historically funded these projects. This is particularly appropriate here, where increased road traffic due to Hiawatha Avenue improvements and the Hiawatha Light Rail traffic have caused road traffic increases. Railroad traffic in the area has remained relatively constant.
Contrary to the article, there is no “finger pointing”, all parties involved not only immediately (within 24 hours) participated in repairs to the crossing, but, are actively engaged in working for a longer term solution. The local councilman infers that he has been working to get this crossing upgraded for many years. However, his press conference a few weeks ago plus emails he triggered to our company was the very first time we had been advised of this issue. Normally, such matters are handled by local government representatives internally with the appropriate departments within government, who then approach us to develop a plan. That was not done in this case. In the past several years, and this year as well, our company has and is participating in crossing upgrades not only in Minneapolis, but, also with several other cities we serve in the Metro area – all having been handled in the manner described above.The repairs which were completed by all parties on an emergency are the best that can be done at present and more than adequate. The councilman seems to think that cement grade crossings are an “off the shelf” item that can be installed in a few days. They are not. These are specially fabricated panels made by specialty manufacturers that first require engineering design and drawings, and then have to be formed in panels with special type hardened cement, and then shipped.(The volumn, weight and speed of vehicular traffic must all be factored in the design for a proper fit) . The lead time for the manufacturing is oftentimes several months or more, as the manufacturers have order backlogs. In the case of 35th Street, with seven tracks, the design is more complicated than a normal one or two track crossing as all these panels have to be designed and fabricated to fit within the existing crossing and track structure. And, in terms of installation, the old crossings and substructure have to be torn out completely and replaced to allow the proper and firm securement of the panels to withstand the constant beating caused by vehicular traffic. And, while a one or two track crossing can oftentimes be completed in a couple of days, this seven track crossing will take much longer, requiring that 35th Street be shut down for perhaps up to two weeks. That’s not as easy as it sounds, as Minnesota DOT will have to approve, arrange detours of traffic in the area to and from Hiawatha Avenue (as it’s a State road artery) and perhaps reprogram traffic control lights in the area while this is being done.Finally, all this has to be scheduled and arranged to be done within the warm weather climates of the area during the road construction season and also has to be scheduled to avoid disruptions of rail service to the customers in the area – to avoid shutdowns of the businesses and layoffs of employees.