Coalition coordinates grassroots battle
Fliers urge local residents to speak out on plan
By Jeffrey Pieters
A yellow flier mailed to perhaps many thousands of Rochester residents this week urges citizens to make their voices heard in the city's fight against expected traffic increases on the Dakota, Minnesota &; Eastern Railroad.
Labeled "Get Ready Rochester," the flier is being published and distributed by the Rochester Coalition, a consortium of Mayo Clinic, the city of Rochester and Olmsted County governments, and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce. The coalition is not named on the flier.
It is the group's attempt to revive a grassroots-style public campaign, similar to the Citizens to Stop the Coal Trains effort that was active several years ago. A public rally is planned for noon Wednesday at Rochester's downtown Peace Plaza.
"People from the coalition believe that the voices of Rochester citizens should not be silent now," said Nancy Brataas, a Rochester resident and former state legislator who oversaw the mass mailing. She declined to say how many fliers were being sent, but said the mailing list was composed of all the same recipients who were sent mailings during the Stop the Coal Trains campaign.
The new campaign begins at a time when DM&E; has received regulatory approval to upgrade its line in Minnesota and South Dakota, and extend it 260 miles west to Wyoming coal fields.
Unlike during the last campaign, the avenues for citizens to express their views now are less defined.
Before, the Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulatory agency, solicited public comment in a formal process. But now, the project has moved past the regulatory stage and the railroad is seeking a $2.3 billion Federal Railroad Administration loan.
On Friday, the administration opens a public comment period to run through Oct. 10, said spokesman Steve Kulm. It is to focus on environmental issues -- potential impacts on parklands and historic sites -- although comments will be accepted on any topic.
On another battle front, Rochester and Olmsted County have a pending court case in federal appeals court, appealing the Surface Transportation Board's most recent approval of the DM&E; project.
Wednesday's rally is to provide information about DM&E's; safety record, which Brataas and others describe as the worst among the 43 largest U.S. railroads, and the railroad's financial standing as it seeks the multi-billion-dollar federal loan. Officials note that the size of the loan so greatly exceeds the railroad's collateral value, it raises questions whether the railroad would be capable of repaying it.
Safety record improves
DM&E; President and CEO Kevin Schieffer previously has acknowledged safety concerns with the railroad, but he said they are not as severe as his Rochester opponents claim, and he said much of the problem is due to deteriorated rails and railbeds. Those would be replaced in the upgrade project, resulting in a safer system, he said.
The most recent Federal Railroad Administration statistics show signs that DM&E's; safety record is improving, with 12 reported accidents occurring between January and May this year, compared to 26 accidents over the same period last year. The DM&E's; accident total declined 31.5 percent (from 92 accidents to 63 accidents) from 2004 to 2005.
Since the start of 2003, DM&E's; 223 reported accidents ranks eighth-highest among U.S. railroads, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The most accident-prone U.S. railroad is the nation's largest, Union Pacific, whose 3,070 accidents since the start of 2003 account for more than one-quarter of the country's rail accidents.
In the last four weeks, the Rochester coalition has called attention to three DM&E; derailments, including one on the DM&E's; sister line, the Iowa, Chicago &; Eastern Railroad. Historically, the railroad has reported accidents at a rate a little higher than one per week.
The flier mailings were funded by money drawn from Citizens to Stop the Coal Trains reserves, Brataas said. That money initially was collected from individual donors in a public fundraising campaign, she said.