An insect-like machine deposits new railroad ties along the tracks in Dodge Center as the train moves along on a slow clip. Photos by Melanie Dobson
By Ruth Hanson
It has been a long and tedious process - this question of whether to send the DM&E freight railroad line - long since bought by the Canadian Pacific - south around Rochester rather than leaving the route going through downtown Rochester.
The tension was more than testy. It was nasty, with Mayo Clinic battling area farmers. The stakes were high.
At some point the questions became centered on safety. Now, those, too, have ended.
Kathy King, chair of the Citizens Against the Railroad Bypass (CARP), spoke during the hour designated for public comment before the regular commissioners' meeting last Tuesday.
"CARB acknowledges the detailed work done by Kimley-Horn and Associates in the Southeastern Minnesota Freight Capacity," she said.
"...regarding this study as 'the first publicly funded analysis of freight railroad operations' we point to the prior Surface Transportation Board and Eighth Circuit Court studies and decisions which covered safety, vibrations, hazardous materials, the issue of dust, karst, sinkholes, mitigation in the city on the current line and much more.
"The study by McGhie and Betts submitted to the STB covered extensive environmental issues. Much of the cost of that study was paid for through Olmsted County funding.
"The 'privately funded rail bypass study" should be identified as the Gannett Fleming Study, paid for by the Mayo Clinic. The Mayo public relations campaign following the release of the study, which promoted a rail bypass in Dodge and Olmsted counties, unleashed a backlash of concern by citizens."
King commented that the current Freight Capacity study clarifies that right of way capacity exists currently for both freight and passenger rail service within the existing corridor. There was overwhelming consensus that action should be taken to preserve the current right-of-way from further incursions or diminishment, and retain the corridor specifically for future transportation access to and through the downtown areas. All local government jurisdictions were represented in the discussion and strongly recommend further work on this issue."
She added that CARB commends the study for addressing Mayo Clinic's safety concerns on the minute chance of an incident involving hazardous materials.
"However, any major city has within its borders a complexity of safety issues," she said. "Rochester is no exception. Examples within the city are: Highway 52, within two blocks west (prevailing winds) of St. Mary's Hospitals on which vehicles travel carrying hazardous materials; 2. Medical helicopters and fuel atop St. Marys Hospital, all within a city neighborhood 3. HazMat and radioactive materials within the Mayo complex, including Methodist, St. Mary's Hospital and the broader Mayo Campus in the center of downtown Rochester."
The FRA (Federal Railroad Administration), as stated in this study, records a steady decline in the occurrence of rail incidents.
She said the recommendations of this study "will place the condition of the rail line and the railroad's operating processes well above the already high standards imposed by the FRA."
CARB noted the importance of moving the rail yard outside of the city to lessen dangers of any incident, locating sidings outside the city and encouraging the city to protect its citizens with mitigation measures on the current line.
King explained that, by design, the rail improvements were intended to focus on capacity rather than safety.
"However, many of the proposed capacity improvements also come with safety benefits," she said.
"As such, local agencies or other private stakeholders, such as Mayo Clinic, may wish to invest in these or other safety improvements independent of total train volumes."
Finally, King said that MnDOT and OCRA, (Olmsted County Regional Rail Authority) stand ready to support further action and investment to advance railroad safety on this corridor.
"The agencies also recognize the advisory committee's recommendation for the Rochester-Olmsted Council of Governments, the city, and county to cooperate in protecting this transportation corridor as a necessary asset, an action meant to preserve future transportation options for the downtown area, the region, and the state."
King ended CARB's report by saying that "This is the perfect time for mitigation within the city to provide safety for citizens and the Destination Medical Center project."