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Joint committee seeks answer to rail congestion

By Jonathan Avise
Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle looks on as Dave Christianson, right, state rail plan project manager, comments during a joint hearing of House and Senate committees on the state's problems with freight rail congestion. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Minnesota’s clogged railways are negatively impacting farmers, miners, heavy industry and more, a joint House and Senate hearing heard Tuesday.

Lawmakers and industry representatives lay the blame for the slowdown on a jump in the number of oil trains crisscrossing the state to and from North Dakota’s booming Bakken oil fields.

But railroad industry representatives told a joint hearing of the House Transportation Finance, Commerce and Consumer Protection committees, and Senate Transportation and Public Safety Division, and Commerce and Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development committees that, even without the increase in oil train traffic, the state’s rail capacity has been stretched in recent years.

Legislators took no action.

"We have an unprecedented situation," said Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls), chair of the House Transportation Finance Committee. Agriculture, mining and passenger rail are all being impacted by the slowdowns, he said. "We need to know why that's happening."

Testifiers representing agricultural interests, northern Minnesota iron ore operations, energy producers and Amtrak passenger rail told lawmakers that congestion on Minnesota’s more than 4,000 miles of tracks is costing their industries money, slowing production and frustrating passengers and rail employees. Oil trains, testifiers said, are largely to blame.

Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said many farmers are finding themselves priced out of trains to transport crops like grain and soybeans to market with oil companies paying in the neighborhood of 500 percent more for rail cars than farmers were paying in recent years. That, he said, cost the state’s farmers around $109 million between March and May of this year.

“We’re competing -- seriously competing -- with other interests around the country,” he said.

Rail officials, however, said the state has seen a two-year surge in traffic and that North Dakota’s oil fields aren’t entirely to blame, nor are oil trains getting priority over other rail traffic.

“We are not prioritizing oil trains,” said Brian Sweeney, regional vice president of state government affairs for BNSF Railway. “Everybody’s service has suffered.”

Last winter’s cold weather was also to blame for major railway delays, Sweeney said.

Rep. Joe Atkins (DFL-Inver Grove Heights), chair of the House Commerce and Consumer Protection Finance and Policy Committee, called the situation “a growing crisis.”

“It’s not just a rural issue,” he said. “It impacts people in the suburbs, in the metro -- all corners of the state.”

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