The president of the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad was in Rochester Wednesday evening, making the case for a $1.5 billion dollar expansion. A few hundred people turned out to hear him defend a plan that could bring as many as three dozen high-speed coal trains through town each day.
Two months ago, a federal regulatory board approved the DM&E's upgrade. Rochester and the Mayo Clinic responded by filing suit in federal court, arguing the ambitious project will hurt the city. The forum made it clear the issue will most likely be resolved in court.
DM&E President Kevin Schieffer says over the past five years, he's made 21 visits to Rochester to discuss his company's expansion plan. Schieffer says he's made a good faith effort to work out a compromise, but city officials have refused his overtures.
"The mission here tonight is to reach out and attempt to get a dialogue going - to get to a positive resolution of that issue. I do not stand here as a Pollyanna, thinking there's a real good chance of that happening - very honestly - but I am going to try," Schieffer said.
Rochester stands out as the DM&E's most vocal adversary. City officials fear the plan to haul coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin through South Dakota and Minnesota will compromise the Mayo Clinic's bottom line.
Rochester leaders have pushed for a plan that would send high-speed trains through rural countryside, effectively bypassing downtown. The railroad has balked at that proposal, claiming the $100 million expense would be prohibitive.
At the forum, Schieffer walked through dozens of fluorescent colored slides detailing the history of failed negotiations, and fielded questions from members of the audience. His presentation was designed to bring Rochester residents information about the expansion he says they should know.
On her way out of the meeting, Rochester resident Jenny Hulsizer said too many tax dollars have gone into fighting what she considers a worthy project.
"We came because we think the city has wasted too much of our money trying to fight this thing, and we thought that upgrading the railroad was a good thing to do," Hulsizer said.
So far, Rochester has spent more than $600,000 in public funds campaigning against the project. The figure is expected to grow as the legal battle continues. While Hulsizer expressed one view, John Stadelman offered another. Stadleman says the city has to protect its economic interests.
"They don't see any other way out. I don't know if they will succeed, (it) depends how much weight Mayo has - they have quite a bit of weight," said Stadleman.
Both Rochester and Mayo officials declined invitations to participate in the public forum. Mayo executives did meet with Schieffer earlier in the day, but did not make any progress.
"We agreed at the end of it, that this is likely to be worked out in the courts to make any progress," said Mayo's chairman Hugh Smith.
DM&E's Schieffer echoed that sentiment throughout the public gathering. At the same time, he expressed hope that a new compromise could be reached, possibly as soon as the end of this month - sparing his company at least one more court battle.More from MPR