Gov. Mark Dayton, joined by officials from cities across the state, proposed Friday a $330 million 10-year spending plan to make railroads and grade crossings safer from passing oil trains.
The proposal, which includes $33 million in new annual assessments on major railroads in Minnesota, is a response to more rail shipments, especially of crude oil from North Dakota. Up to 60 oil trains, often with 100 or more tank cars, roll though the state weekly.
“Our local communities have a much lower margin of error now because it takes just one 30,000-gallon oil tanker to derail and explode and you have a catastrophe,” said Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, one of more than a dozen officials to appear with Dayton at a St. Paul news conference.
The governor proposed major projects to separate trains from roadways with bridges or underpasses in Coon Rapids, Moorhead, Willmar and Prairie Island. Those projects, Dayton said, will be included in an upcoming bonding bill, and do not rely on the proposed new assessment on railroads.
The railroad assessments would pay for upgrading 71 other rail crossings, better emergency preparation, the state’s first hazmat training facility at Camp Ripley near Little Falls, Minn., and a new rail office director position to oversee freight rail issues.
The package also includes Marquart’s not-yet-introduced bill to separately increase railroads’ property taxes by assessing rail cars, trestles and rail bridges. That would raise $45 million annually for municipal governments, but not necessarily for rail safety.
Railroads are not on board with Dayton’s plan. BNSF Railway, the top oil hauler out of North Dakota with 1,584 miles of track in Minnesota, said it opposes the measure.
“We believe the proposed changes are in direct violation of federal law because they single out railroads for discriminatory taxation,” BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said in an e-mail. “This is a matter that was already litigated between railroads and the state more than 20 years ago and resolved in favor of the rail industry.”
John Apitz, legislative counsel to the Minnesota Regional Railroads Association, said railroads are making safety-related investments. “Unfortunately, the governor continues to propose a slew of new taxes on Minnesota’s railroads that are punitive and unnecessary in light of the hundreds of millions of dollars that are being deployed by railroads to improve the state’s rail system,” he said.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who has been pushing rail safety measures for more than a year, said railroads have been assessed in the past, including for track inspectors under a law passed last year. “We do feel we are on solid ground legally,” he said in an interview. “Our bottom line is that railroads should be paying the lion’s share of the cost.”
The proposal is sure to face questions in the Republican-controlled House. Although two Republican representatives co-sponsored Hornstein’s railroad assessment measure, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee expressed reservations. The bill is set for a committee hearing Monday.
“While the governor and I agree that our railroad crossings need improvements, the funding source is still the main issue,” said Rep. Tim Kelly, a Republican who represents Red Wing, Minn., which abuts Canadian Pacific’s tracks along the Mississippi River.
Dayton has made rail safety a major issue, hosting seven community meetings around the state. His administration in the past year also studied rail crossings and public safety implications of North Dakota oil train traffic and began training programs funded under a 2014 law he supported.
In the past month, four oil trains have derailed in Illinois, West Virginia and Ontario, and an ethanol train derailed in Iowa. Federal officials recently estimated that 10 such accidents can be expected each year.
At Prairie Island, home of 250 members of the Mdewakanton tribe and their Treasure Island Resort & Casino, the railroad tracks cross the only access road in and out, said the community’s Police Chief Jon Priem. In October, he said, the derailment of a Canadian Pacific train ignited a brush fire that firefighters quickly put out.
“Thankfully the train car that was damaged and derailed wasn’t carrying highly flammable crude oil, but those dangerous loads pass through Prairie Island every day,” Priem said.
Coon Rapids Fire Chief John Piper, who appeared with Dayton on Friday, said derailments are not the only public safety concern. Trains passing through his city of 62,000 people northwest of the Twin Cities often slow down or stop, blocking roads for up to 30 minutes at a time.
“In an emergency, whether it is law enforcement, fire or medical emergency, seconds count,” he said. “We shoot for a four-minute response. … It’s not happening on a daily basis because of these crossings being blocked.”