Railroads have been ramping up shipments of volatile North Dakota crude oil through Minnesota for much of the past decade. Now, Minnesota has its first official state estimate of how many people live within a half-mile of oil train routes. It’s 326,170, a number released Thursday that is staggering but not surprising given that oil trains crisscross the state, including the metro area.
It’s unfortunate that very few Minnesotans living in an evacuation zone for fiery oil train derailments were at a Minnesota House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee hearing Monday night. There, state lawmakers weighed legislation aligned with Gov. Mark Dayton’s prudent push to improve rail crossings and assess the state’s four major railroads up to a total of $33 million a year for 10 years to help pay for improvements.
Queries, such as the one from Republican Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, that essentially asked what was in it for the railroads did not leave the impression that all committee members were giving public safety top billing. Neither did the long ideological monologues about legislators’ personal distaste for asking industry to help keep Minnesota communities safe.
The reality is that Minnesota is at the epicenter of crude-oil transport, thanks to its North Dakota neighbor and proximity to Canada. Despite the recent drop in oil prices, that’s unlikely to change, a situation compounded by President Obama’s recent veto of the Keystone XL pipeline. State officials estimate that about seven or eight trains with Bakken crude come through the state each day.
Fiery derailment tragedies in Casselton, N.D., and Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, leave no doubt about the risks these trains pose to those who live near tracks. Accidents happen infrequently, but the potential for death and destruction is undeniable. Railroad officials testified that the industry is making significant investments in tracks through the state to improve safety. The industry also questioned the legality of the assessments and said crossing improvements would do little to reduce derailment risks.
But in late February, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) launched a national campaign to improve rail-grade crossings. A top FRA official called crossings a “serious problem,’’ adding that “we can and should be doing everything we possibly can to keep drivers, pedestrians, and train crews and passengers safe.’’ Minnesota’s own state transportation experts have identified 75 crossings in dire need of improvements.
Dayton’s bonding bill will include funding for major upgrades in Coon Rapids, Moorhead, Prairie Island and Willmar. Rail companies, which are profiting from crude oil shipments but share little of the public-safety risks, should be willing partners in improving the rest.