MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO/AP) — Gov. Mark Dayton and democratic lawmakers have released their newest proposal Friday morning, calling for 75 railway safety projects across Minnesota.
If passed, the plan would invest $330 million over the next decade in construction of safer railroad crossings in Minnesota.
Oil traffic and safety along rail crossings has been a hot topic among lawmakers after several major derailments in recent years.
While none happened in Minnesota, at least four trains hauling crude derailed within the last month: one in Illinois, one in West Virginia and two in Canada. Also, in December of 2013, 400,000 gallons of crude spilled in North Dakota.
Democratic lawmakers believe derailments like this could happen anytime and are proposing $75 million for four communities: Willmar, Coon Rapids, Moorhead and Prairie Island. They also would like to provide a rail and pipeline training facility for first responders.
“That is the responsibility of the railroad,” Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said of improvements.
In order to pay for the proposal, Dayton calls for modernizing railroad property taxes – expanding taxable property to include rolling stock, rail cars, trestles and rail bridges. Other measures, including assessments on Class I railroads state general obligation bonds, would also help fund the proposal.
“Over the last year, I have traveled across Minnesota and seen firsthand the very serious and costly challenges that increased rail traffic have thrust upon our communities,” Dayton said. “Minnesotans did not cause these disruptions; they are not responsible for the endless barrage of dangerous cargo being shipped through their communities every day. The railroads responsible for these problems have a responsibility to pay for these essential safety improvements.”
Also in the proposal: property tax relief and more quiet zones for communities located along busy rail lines.
Railroad companies like BNSF Railway have balked at those proposals and suggested they may violate federal laws by singling out their industry.
Dayton brought officials from towns with heavy train traffic to St. Paul Friday to ramp up pressure for his plan. Dayton says railroad companies’ opposition to pay more for safety improvements is “totally unacceptable.”
Majority House Republicans have also signaled they’re not on board with the governor’s proposal.
“While the governor and I agree that our railroad crossings need improvements, the funding source is still the main issue,” said Rep. Tim Kelly, the Republican chair of the House Transportation Finance committee.
But democrats say this new proposal will keep the transportation of hazardous materials safer.
“With all the oil trains coming through our community now, our local communities have a much smaller margin for error. All it takes is one explosion and you have a catastrophe,” State Rep. Paul Marquart said.
For places like Coon Rapids, one-third of their population lives a half-mile away from a railroad.
At least seven to nine trains carrying oil from North Dakota travel across Minnesota every day, according to state authorities.
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