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Federal board gives nod to DM&E expansion project
By Erin Galbally
Minnesota Public Radio
January 30, 2002
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A federal board has given a green light to the most ambitious railroad project since the Civil War. The Dakota Minnesota and Eastern Railroad now has official endorsement to proceed with its $1.4 billion expansion plan. DM&E intends to haul coal from Wyoming through South Dakota and Minnesota. However, before construction even begins, the project's next hurdle is expected to be in the courtroom.

The ruling means Rochester and other cities will get more DM&E trains coming through at higher speeds. That's something Rochester and Mayo officials have spent more than $600,000 to avoid. The ruling rejects a plan that would have sent trains through farmland instead of downtown.

"It was disappointing to see that, but we suspected as much," said Rochester City Attorney Terry Adkins.

That was the only formal response. Adkins says he and other city officials will issue public comments sometime next week. The Mayo Clinic is also holding off on its response. Both parties are expected to file suit together against the Surface Transportation Board, appealing the decision and eventually taking the case the court.

But not everyone in southeastern Minnesota is upset by the federal decision. Kathy King heads a group of rural landowners and farmers whose property would have been split by a Rochester bypass. The ruling means, at least for now, their homes and businesses will remain intact. King says the facts prevailed despite heavy-duty lobbying for a bypass from Rochester's political and economic powers.

"We are very pleased with this ruling. We have great respect for all of those who believe in the need for science and fact and reason in coming to a solution on this issue. There were so many pieces out there that were not credible and put out as fact and truth when they were not. We were concerned that people that don't have a lot of money and a lot of political clout would be left in the dust," King said.

That political clout includes Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. Late last month, Thompson wrote a letter to the Surface Transportation Board using security concerns to advocate for a Rochester bypass.

Minnesota Senators Dayton and Wellstone also submitted letters pushing for new track that would loop around the city.

At a recent meeting in Rochester, Dayton pledged to block the coal trains with his body if necessary. The federal board has acknowelged those safety and security concerns. They say the DM&E's proposed route is safe. Moreover, the expansion plays a vital role in satisfying the Bush administration's energy policy.

DM&E President Kevin Schieffer believes the ruling is strong enough to weather any court battle. He says he hopes Rochester will take a more levelheaded approach in the future.

"Rochester has convinced itself - or at least a handful of the leadership in Rochester has convinced themselves - that there are more problems then really exist here. I think the practical fact of the matter here is that this is not going to have a kind of apocalyptic impact that they're trying to convince the rest of the community its going to have," he said.

Schieffer hopes to start construction next year. Appeals to this ruling must be filed within 60 days. Multiple appeals are expected.

More from MPR
  • Government recommends no DM&E bypass around Rochester (11/19/01)
  • A project without parallel (11/20/01)