Railroad, shippers eager to get Waterloo bridge back up
By Jean Caspers-Simmet
WATERLOO, Iowa — The downtown Waterloo railroad bridge, which collapsed during last summer’s floods, is still in pieces in the Cedar River, but if Iowa Northern Railway Company President Dan Sabin has anything to say about it, trains will be traveling over the river by the end of July.
"It’s been a difficult and trying time for our 163-mile railroad," Sabin said last week. He stood on the bank of the Cedar with the collapsed bridge in the background. Two Iowa Northern locomotives pulling cars of John Deere tractors sat at the river’s edge.
"We’ve essentially been operating as two completely separate railroads," Sabin said. "Although the west bank is only about 1,000 feet away, to get to Cedar Rapids, we have to take a 300-mile detour. It’s been an extreme penalty for our customers not only in terms of cost, but also time, and it’s been a tremendous burden on our small railway."
The morning the bridge went down, U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley’s staff was on the phone with the Iowa Northern trying to assess what could be done.
"We’re very fortunate to have a congressman in a position of leadership who could meet quickly with congressional leaders to help us get through this," Sabin said.
Bruce Buxton, general manager of Famers Coop in Readlyn and Shellrock, said that in 1992 his elevator was shipping 500,000 bushels of grain by rail. Today, thanks to Sabin and the Iowa Northern, his elevator ships 4.5 million bushels.
"As of June we lost the rail and the farmers are starting to feel the pinch," Buxton said.
Wil Manweiler, grain department manager at Dunkerton Cooperative Elevator, said his company didn’t ship anything by rail 10 years ago. About 7 years ago, Sabin convinced the elevator to try his railroad.
"Since then we’ve invested over $5 million in a grain facility, grain load-out, and rail receiving fertilizer warehouse," Manweiler said. "With the bridge out, everything takes a 300-mile detour. It’s vital that we get the bridge back and have access to markets."
Braley said repairing the railroad bridge repaired is personal to him. His father managed a grain elevator and Braley used to clean box cars.
"I have a personal understanding of how critical rail transportation is,’ he said.
The day after the bridge collapsed, Braley returned to Waterloo to see how he could help.
He was able to get $20 million in grant funds into the Disaster Relief Package. The Iowa Northern has applied for a grant from those funds. Provisions of Braley’s Back on Track Act, which creates low-interest loans for disaster-damaged infrastructure, was included in the Rail Safety Improvement Act.
The recently passed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes $358 million for Iowa highways, bridges and rail infrastructure. The Waterloo bridge is eligible for this funding. The bill also includes another $1.5 billion DOT grant program for which the bridge is also eligible.
"It’s time to go back to the future and recommit resources to rebuild rail infrastructure," Braley said.