DM&E project steaming aheadby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
Senator Norm Coleman says he's ready to block federal appointments if necessary over the DM&E railroad expansion. Coleman joined the Rochester Coalition in protesting the Federal Railroad Administration's latest approval of the project. The decision means the railroad's request for a $2.3 billion federal loan must be decided within three months.
Rochester, Minn. — There are four main players to this story: the Federal Railroad Administration, the Rochester Coalition led by the Mayo Clinic, the South Dakota-based DM&E Railroad, and finally the Surface Transportation Board, another government agency.
Two of these players, the Coalition and the railroad, are going head-to-head.
The other two are referees. There are heavy-hitting free agents, like Senators Norm Coleman.
At this point in the game, the FRA just awarded points to the railroad. Late Wednesday it decided the project that would haul coal from Wyoming to the Mississippi is environmentally sound. That decision starts a 90 day clock during which the FRA has to approve or reject the loan.
The Rochester Coalition disagrees with the FRA's call. It believes the project is unsafe all along the line, but particularly in Rochester. It says dozens of high-speed coal trains could run through the city everyday and potentially spill toxic materials near the hospital complex.
Today the coalition significantly increased its bench strength.
Senator Norm Coleman joined Senator Amy Klobuchar, Congressman Tim Walz in voicing disapproval of the administration's decision.
"I am certainly not happy at all with where we're at, at the present time" Coleman said.
"Individual senators can make it difficult on a department, very difficult. Nominations for positions can be left unfilled for an extended period of time. Budgets matters can come under extensive review that have no relation to this project. Our concern has been very, very clear. This is of the highest concern."
Coleman says he is prepared to do whatever is necessary, including sponsoring legislation, to make sure Rochester's safety concerns are addressed. However, he believes the loan will be hard to stop.
F-R-A spokesman Steve Kulm says the agency is only looking at finances now. The agency still needs to determine whether the railroad can pay back the federal government.
But he says Rochester's fears about train derailments and toxic spills will be included in the loan decision. He says the ruling Wednesday calls for the railroad to adopt new measures to improve safety and air quality.
"The additional mitigation efforts that we announced, and any other additional conditions in the final loan document, if in fact the loan gets approved," Kulm says.
DM&E Railroad President Kevin Schieffer says the trains would have no negative effect on Rochester's economy. And he says, trying to kill the loan would kill part of Minnesota's economy.
"Hostility against this loan is directly against Minnesota agriculture interests," says Schieffer. "It's directly against Minnesota energy consumers. And it's directly against the Minnesota economic development associations in the dozens of small communities along the line in Minnesota that support our project because of the economic development opportunities."
Some of Schieffer's heavy hitters that want more trains include the American Farm Bureau, the corn growers association and Minnesota Rural Electric Association.
But Rochester and Mayo want to keep the city, largely, without trains.
There are two ways for Rochester to get what it wants.
The first involves killing the loan.
The Coalition's second hope to win involves re-routing the trains down another line south of the city. That's called the I.C. and E. line and it's owned by the DM&E.
The other referee in this game, the Surface Transportation Board, just announced it will evaluate the environmental effects of hauling coal on that line.
The second rail line is not part of the railroad's loan application, so whether the Surface Transportation Board approves it for hauling coal or not, doesn't effect the federal loan.
Senator Coleman says the clock is ticking. And he says the transportation secretary understands his concern. He says he and other members of the Minnesota delegation will make sure the loan doesn't pass in present form.
- All Things Considered, 02/01/2007, 5:19 p.m.