Keith Franke ran for office complaining about the high cost of upgrading rail crossings in town.
Now, as his term as St. Paul Park mayor draws to a close, and in the aftermath of a collision between a train and a truck at a city crossing earlier this month, he finds himself wrestling with the issue again, but with a somewhat different perspective.
This time, the city is facing the prospect of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to close a crossing determined by the state to be unsafe.
The ironic twist started to unfold in December, when the town where Franke grew up made a statewide list of the highest priority dangerous rail crossings.
Then, this month, he found himself welcoming Gov. Mark Dayton to town after an oil train and a semitrailer truck collided on the very intersection that the Minnesota Department of Transportation had urged be closed.
For a downtown cafe owner who grew up in the old river town and took frequent trains on two sets of tracks for granted, he said, it has all been a bit of a shock.
“It was ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ ” he said, sipping coffee in a booth at the back of a crowded cafe on the town’s main drag. “You don’t think about it till it’s an issue. But it’s a little scary. A reporter asked me whether all the oil trains coming through here worried me and I said, ‘Not till I started thinking about it.’ ”
Two busy rail corridors interrupt traffic constantly in St. Paul Park. One is downtown. But the intersection that MnDOT urged be closed is on the other line, in a much more obscure location amid industrial users, on the city’s border with Newport.
MnDOT’s declaration that it was so bad as to warrant closing at a cost of $2 million, rather than even risk putting up crossing arms, led to a lot of thought, the mayor said.
“Probably two months ago we ordered a feasibility report on what it would cost to close it,” he said. “The alternative is a dirt road not built for semis, so that would have to be brought up to a nine- or 10-ton standard and that is money the city doesn’t have.”
The city is projecting the cost as closer to $1 million than $2 million, said city administrator Kevin Walsh.
Even so, the mayor added, “that would be almost half of our entire annual city budget,” if the city alone had to carry the bill.
The irony: Franke ousted the previous mayor in part, he said, by appealing to public unhappiness over the manner and cost of a move several years ago to create a “quiet zone” for rail crossing. That means costly upgrades so trains don’t need whistle blasts.
“The residents said, ‘We don’t need it,’ but it got pushed through anyway,” the mayor said.
Sharing the bill
Amy McBeth, spokeswoman for the BNSF Railway, said the company and the state earlier this year jointly “offered to provide the city $600,000 to close the crossing and for road improvements. The city has had the agreement and has been considering it.”
Overall, she said, BNSF has “closed more than 5,700 at-grade crossings on our network … the rate of grade crossing accidents has decreased by more than 80 percent through these and other efforts.”
The chances of derailment in such cases are small, she added. “In the recent incident at this crossing, the train did not derail and in fact, that only occurs in about 1 percent of grade crossing incidents.”
Earlier this month, Dayton seized on the incident in St. Paul Park as part of a lobbying effort with lawmakers to come up with more money for more sites. Aides issued a statement saying:
“On Minnesota’s most highly traveled routes, oil trains pass through more than 683 crossings, traveling through some of Minnesota’s most populous communities. Each of these crossings increases the chance of a train or motor vehicle accident, while placing Minnesotans who must travel across the tracks at risk.”
In St. Paul Park, meanwhile, said administrator Walsh, “our engineers are completing a feasibility report and should have better numbers in the next couple of weeks.”