No death knell just yet for DM&E expansion planby Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio
Now that the federal government has denied a huge loan for the DM&E railroad expansion, is the project dead? DM&E still has federal approval to expand its lines, but no financing. Analysts and people along the rail line in southern Minnesota and South Dakota are wondering what's yet to come.
Sioux Falls, S.D. — Roy Blanchard knows railroads, as an analyst and a sometime investor. He opposed a federal loan to the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad.
"We don't need federal government funding for brand new railroads, especially when there's no clear need for it," says Blanchard. "If the utilities wanted a new railroad then they would be investing in it. If the financial markets wanted a new railroad then they would be investing in it. But they're not."
DM&E's expansion project has been in the works for nearly 10 years. It was approved by the Surface Transportation Board, but challenges to that approval have repeatedly failed.
Blanchard says all the project needs is the $6 billion it takes to build a railroad. But Blanchard wouldn't invest in this, because he isn't sure he'd get a good return on his money.
DM&E's finances have never been open for public view. Repeated requests for the information have been denied by both the company and the Federal Railroad Administration.
That's perfectly legal, but Roy Blanchard says keeping the data from the public jeopardized the project. Blanchard says DM&E could have applied for other kinds of federal funding, like tax credits.
The company's president, Kevin Schieffer, says he's looking at his options.
Some farmers were hoping DM&E's expansion would give them new ways to get their crops to market.
Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, says rail transportation is important to farmers in rural areas. He saw the proposed expansion as an opportunity for farmers to move things faster, safer and more efficiently.
"That's why this expansion was so important in improvements, as to be able to increase the use of the DM&E from where we are now," says Paap. "We were looking forward to having that ability to ship more agriculture products -- whether it be the stuff we grow or the renewable fuels -- to ship more of it, not less of it."
Paap is also concerned about the loss of economic development opportunities in communities along the line. He wants the track upgraded and the trains to continue.
No one has been fighting against DM&E longer than Nancy Darnell, who owns a ranch in Newcastle, Wyoming. The new track would have crossed her land.
Since the permits the DM&E has already received have no expiration date, she's not sure what will happen to the expansion plan. Darnell says that's a new kind of worry.
"They just said, 'Here's the license and let the market decide.' What that does to all of the people who live along the proposed route -- and not just ranchers and landowners in western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming, but homeowners in the towns they pass through, are left with a hugh project hanging over their heads which could some day be revived," says Darnell.
Darnell says it could be years before anything happens. One possibility is that another company could buy the DM&E railroad, and build the expansion without any government regulation or financing.
Darnell says she wants the licenses and permits for the DM&E expansion to have an expiration date. She says that will be her next project in the never-ending battle between supporters and opponents of the DM&E rail project.
- All Things Considered, 02/27/2007, 5:23 p.m.