A railroad runs through it

Minnesota State Roundup

Published January 1, 2002  | January 2002 issue

Rochester city leaders had mixed reactions to a late November Surface Transportation Board (STB) report on the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad's (DM&E) plans to run its coal trains through the city.

The STB, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation that regulates rail transit, issued an environmental impact statement approving DM&E's plans to rebuild its line across three states. However, Rochester officials had requested that DM&E build new tracks to bypass the city, an idea the railroad opposed. But the STB's report did call for several mitigation steps by the railroad, including grade-separated crossings and noise mitigation and requested that DM&E continue to work with the city and the Mayo Clinic in the development process.

The STB based its decisions on 14 factors and indicated that although upgrading the existing line through Rochester would have a "significant impact on safety and noise," it would not significantly affect the other factors. Instead, the report determined that a bypass could have considerably affected safety, land use, soils, water resources and wetlands and created geologic hazards. The STB also determined that a bypass could have a potentially serious impact on cultural resources such as family farms, a stance taken by rural landowners who would be affected by the bypass.

The 1,096-mile DM&E project, which would bring up to 100 million tons of low-sulfur coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin to power plants through South Dakota to Minnesota, would be the largest US railroad-building venture in more than a century. In addition, it is expected that the project will create about 6,520 construction jobs in Wyoming, South Dakota and Minnesota.

Once financing is secured, mitigation steps included in DM&E's plan are taken, and final federal approval is received, it will be 2007 before coal is hauled across the three-state region.

Rochester is not the only city requesting a rail bypass. The city of Brookings, S.D., is debating the issue as well. The city council there passed a resolution-backed with a $4 million contribution-requiring DM&E to build a bypass around that city. City residents, however, narrowly voted down the resolution in a nonbinding November referendum.

Kathy Cobb