Minn. state leaders disagree on rail oil safety approach

ST. PAUL -- There is no overall agreement on how to prevent Minnesota oil train explosions. Democrats want to raise railroad taxes $100 million to improve oil train safety. Republicans balk at higher taxes and say more information is needed befor...

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Minnesota Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth points to a map showing where rail crossing repairs are needed Tuesday, March 10, 2015, as he presses for more funding. With him is Rep. Lyndon Carlson of Crystal. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

ST. PAUL -- There is no overall agreement on how to prevent Minnesota oil train explosions.

Democrats want to raise railroad taxes $100 million to improve oil train safety. Republicans balk at higher taxes and say more information is needed before drawing up a solution.

Assistant House Minority Leader Paul Marquart of Dilworth and Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis, along with Democratic colleagues, on Tuesday released their plans to expand the property tax to railroad cars and to increase assessments on railroads. It is a plan similar to that of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

Republicans, who control the House, are expected to release their transportation plan soon, but House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said more information is needed before a comprehensive rail safety plan is written.

"This is a huge, huge issue," said Marquart, who lives a half mile from tracks carrying five to seven oil trains a day and whose high school classroom where he teaches is two blocks from the tracks.


The entire Dilworth community, where Marquart once was mayor, is within the half-mile danger zone of the tracks, Marquart said. "We have to make intersections and crossings safer."

The Democrats propose increasing assessments on the four largest Minnesota railroads -- including BNSF and Canadian Pacific railway companies, which carry most of the oil -- to provide $32 million that would be used to improve railroad crossings. Changing the law to charge property tax on rail cars would provide the state $20 million a year for crossing improvements and give local governments $45 million to use however they want.

Marquart and Hornstein emphasized the need to improve crossings, although none of the past five weeks' oil train derailments and fires they mentioned in Iowa, West Virginia, Illinois and Canada occurred near crossings.

Kelly noticed that crossings were not blamed for the fiery derailments.

"I believe we need to understand the problem more," Kelly said, although he agreed that many crossings are dangerous or cause traffic congestion and should be improved. "I don't think we fully understand the extent of the problem and how to solve it."

Crossing improvements could be funded under the transportation bill he plans to announce soon, Kelly said. However, he added, a solution to oil train safety may not come until next year.

"It is our responsibility to deal with it," Kelly said, adding that the answer is not just taxing railroads more when a solution is not known.

Railroad lobbyist John Apitz said that not only is the Democratic plan a $100 million tax increase on railroads, at least some of it may violate federal law dealing with taxing railroads. He said if the legislation were to pass, railroads "absolutely" would take the state to federal court.


Also, he said, the new taxes come at a time when railroads are spending money to improve their Minnesota tracks to reduce congestion.

BNSF alone plans to spend about $500 million this year on its Minnesota property, much of it along the line from Moorhead to the Twin Cities that carries much of the oil.

Hornstein said Minnesota cannot wait to deal with crude oil being shipped from North Dakota's Bakken oil region and from southern Canada.

"We are at the crossroads of oil transportation by rail," Hornstein said.

He mentioned a federal report predicting more than 200 crude oil and ethanol-carrying trains will derail in the next two decades, with 10 in urban areas. Total cost to recover from the derailments would be more than $18 billion, the U.S. Department of Transportation predicted.

With railroads earning ever-increasing profits, Hornstein and Marquart said, they should pay for safety improvements.

The Democratic plans, Hornstein said, are "asking the railroad to pay their fair share. ... This should not be a cost to taxpayers."

What started a year ago as just an oil safety debate quickly expanded to include traffic problems when Dayton began a series of rail safety summits and local officials complained about rail crossings being blocked for long periods.


Marquart said Moorhead officials are concerned that trains can block crossings in that city four to eight hours a day, making it difficult for police, firefighters and ambulance workers to respond to emergencies.

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