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Senate kills quiet rail bill; probably will be revived

BISMARCK -- The Senate narrowly voted down a bill late Friday that several North Dakota cities had been counting on to help them silence ear-splitting train horns.

But Senate leaders predict the bill will be revived Monday because its prime sponsor, Sen. David Nething, R-Jamestown, was absent Friday.

Senate Bill 2338, known as the quiet rail bill, died on a 23-19 vote that is, 23 "yes" votes to 19 "no" votes because Senate bills need 24 votes to pass. The Senate has 47 members.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Fischer at first announced after the vote that the bill had passed, but Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem, R-Bismarck, corrected him before the Senate adjourned for the day.

The bill started out with $6.4 million in it for the 2009-11 biennium. The money is the state taxes that railroads pay into the state highway fund for the diesel fuel they buy for their locomotives.

Quiet rail or quiet zone is the term used for special railroad crossings that can be constructed in cities to allow trains to travel through without having to sound their horns. Otherwise, federal rules mandate the train horns be used at full volume at all crossings.

Jamestown and Bismarck voters last year voted down quiet rail programs, presumably because they did not want to bear the costs of the expensive new crossings. Residents of Bismarck, Jamestown, Mandan and Medora were among the citizens testifying in favor of SB 2338 during the session.

Nething's bill was based on the idea that railroads' fuel taxes are paying for building and maintaining roads that they don't use. The Senate passed the bill largely as is, though it limited grants for a single crossing to no more than $100,000 and grants for all crossings within a city to not exceed a cumulative $500,000. The Senate also put a June 30, 2011, expiration date on the program.

The House cut the funding back nearly two-thirds. The version it passed earlier this week contains $1.6 million from the railroad companies' diesel fuel taxes and $900,000 in federal highway safety funds for the grant program for interested cities.

Under the House version, the cities must match any grant money they get from the fund and no more than $75,000 would be available for any one crossing. No city could obtain more than $225,000 over the next two years under the program.

In the Senate on Friday, Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, recommended on behalf of the Senate Finance and Tax Committee that the Senate concur with the House version of the bill and give it final passage. Senators concurred on a voice vote but when it moved to final passage, Minority Leader Sen. David O'Connell, D-Lansford, spoke against it, saying the money for the program comes out of road funds that are desperately needed.

"I don't think this is the appropriate time to be doing this," he said.

Nething was traveling Friday and not available for comment on the vote. Earlier in the week, he declined to criticize the House's action to reduce the money in the bill, saying even a small amount of funding is better than nothing.

Legislative rules allow for members who are absent to ask that a bill be reconsidered the following day in most instances.