ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Railroads should foot the bill of improving rail safety, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said Friday as he announced a proposal to tax them nearly $100 million annually.
The Democratic governor also suggested borrowing almost $80 million to improve railroad crossing safety and reduce congestion, as well as increasing training for public safety personnel who would deal with derailments.
The proposal would fund 75 railroad safety improvements around the state, mostly better crossings. The most expensive work, which Dayton wants to come from borrowed money, would be installation of bridges to separate tracks from roads in Moorhead, Willmar, Prairie Island Indian Community and Coon Rapids.
In announcing his plan, Dayton was adamant that the state's four largest railroads should pay for safety.
"Minnesotans did not cause these disruptions; they are not responsible for the endless barrage of dangerous cargo being shipped through their communities every day," Dayton said. "The railroads responsible for the problems have a responsibility to pay for these essential safety improvements."
The governor said congestion has delayed shipments of products ranging from farm goods to coal destined for power plants. It also delays the public wanting to cross railroad tracks and public safety personnel headed to emergencies, he said.
Like a Democratic legislative proposal announced earlier in the week, most of the money in Dayton's plan would go to improving railroad crossings.
Railroad officials say if the state raises their taxes, they will take Minnesota to federal court. The railroads say federal law bans the state putting some of the proposed taxes on them, although Dayton said his revenue commissioner assures him it is legal.
"If they want to take us to court, that shows their true colors," Dayton said.
Dayton's rail safety funding plan would raise $33 million a year by increasing an existing assessment on the four largest Minnesota railroads. He also would increase railroads' property taxes by starting to tax cars, bridges and other property now now taxes, bringing in $45 million a year for local governments to spend as they wish and another $21 million for the state.
Dayton and his Democratic colleagues should not expect Republicans to embrace their plans.
"While the governor and I agree that our railroad crossings need improvements, the funding source is still the main issue," House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said.
Republicans generally say no new taxes are needed to deal with transportation improvements.
Kelly plans to announce his transportation funding plan next week.
Dayton hosted rail safety summits around the state last summer and fall. While they began as discussions about trains hauling North Dakota oil through Minnesota, rail congestion quickly entered the discussion.
Dayton said he regularly hears stories about waits from 10 minutes to 30 minutes.
Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams, one of several local officials who joined Dayton at his rail safety announcement, said that railroad crossing safety issues always are on her mind, especially given a North Dakota derailment and explosion not far from her community.
However, she said, the public talks to her more about being forced to wait at rail crossings. "They are mostly annoyed."
With five sets of tracks going through her town, three through downtown, there are 106 crossings of roads a day. Five to seven are trains hauling crude oil from western North Dakota.
Williams said that her community does not like the closed railroad crossings that can delay law enforcement, fire and ambulance responses to emergencies.
Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin, a former fire chief, said that his city's fire department is well prepared for railroad problems, but "at the same time that (oil train derailment) is going to be very catastrophic if it happens in downtown Willmar."
Since Willmar has a switching yard, he said, trains often go slow through the area, closing crossings for long periods of time.
BNSF Railway Co. and Willmar are working together to install a rail bypass on the west side of the city, with Dayton suggesting that the state fund an overpass.
One of the most unusual stories came from Police Chief Jon Priem of the Prairie Island Indian Community near Red Wing, who said that oil carrying trains, as well as others, cross the only road leading to the community and its casino, Treasure Island. If the crossing is closed for a short time, he said, a helicopter may be called in to transport medical patients, but a longer closing such as forced by an oil train derailment could result in other emergency services being unable to reach the scene.
Prairie Island has dealt with hosting a nuclear power plant for decades, but with oil trains passing through, the police chief said: "There is a new concern that has been added."
While state officials could not say just how many Minnesotans live within what is considered a half-mile danger zone from tracks carrying oil trains -- Dayton said it was "hundreds of thousands" -- Coon Rapids Fire Chief John Piper said that a third of his city's 62,000 residents live there.
Local officials could not point to any cases of death or medical conditions made worse because of public safety equipment delays at railroad tracks. However, Calvin said that fires double in size every minute, so a crossing delay will increase fire damage.
The Dayton plan includes borrowing $3.1 million to construct a training facility at the National Guard's Camp Ripley. It would help public safety personnel learn about dealing with emergencies such as oil fires.