State oversight committee begins study of railroad project

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A final federal decision on expansion of the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad to Wyoming coal fields could take several months or several years.
Members of an oversight committee appointed by Gov. Bill Janklow were told Wednesday that the environmental review of a coal-train project in Montana took eight years, and it took two years to finish such a review on a request to extend tracks just eight miles in Louisiana.
The DM&E environmental review involves not only 280 miles of new rail line from Wasta to Powder River Basin coal fields in Wyoming, but also improvements on 818 miles of existing tracks across South Dakota and Minnesota.
Vicki Rutson, a lawyer with the federal Surface Transportation Board, could not say how long the environmental study would take.
“This is a very large and complex project with a lot of environmental issues to be dealt with,” she said.
The railroad needs the board’s approval to expand its tracks into Wyoming. The board must decide by Nov. 3 if the new rail line is a “public convenience and necessity.” But no action will be taken on the railroad extension until the environmental review is finished.
Critics complain that running 34 coal trains across South Dakota each day will cause problems from traffic safety to reduced property values.
The oversight committee, which must report back to the governor, plans to hold public meetings in the next several weeks at towns along DM&E tracks.
Some spoke Wednesday about the railroad’s plans.
South Dakotans who live near the railroad will be losers, said Dianne Wegner, whose family has an auto dealership along the tracks.
“This company is asking us to really alter our way of life,” she said.
The railroad should find another route around the capital city, added Bob Parsons, who built a furniture store along the tracks several years ago. Property values will decline, traffic will be tied up and emergency services will suffer if long coal trains begin running through Pierre, he said.
But Alberta Olson, whose husband works for the DM&E, said the project will bring jobs and a boost to the economy.
“This isn’t just a railroad thing,” she said. “A lot of different businesses will benefit.”
About 25 to 30 trains per day travel through Winona, Minn., on a connecting Canadian Pacific line. The expansion could add seven more trains each way initially and up to 17 trains each way within 10 years.
The Winona County Board originally supported the project but has since “backed up and taken second and third looks at it,” Winona County Commissioner Don Peterson told the Post-Bulletin of Rochester. He supports the project.
“We’ve got to use the best method of transportation available to haul products from farm to market,” said Peterson, owner of Mississippi Welders Supply Co. Inc., at a public meeting Wednesday.
The need for low-sulphur coal and expected deregulation of the electric utility industry are behind the project, said railroad president Kevin Schieffer.
The DM&E will do all it can to offset problems and will pay for safety devices at road crossings, Schieffer said.