by Sarah Squires
If the trains come more often, and faster, area municipalities will have to take a look at county rail crossings to ensure they stay as safe as possible.
The county and surrounding Minnesota might indeed see more trains, and faster trains, if a proposed Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern (DM&E) railway expansion is completed. The expansion hinges on a $2.3 billion loan from the federal government "” the largest such loan to a private business in the country's history.
The upgrade and expansion would extend rail tracks westward from Wall, South Dakota, to the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and upgrade tracks throughout Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa, including tracks running westward out of Minnesota City.
Winona County Highway Superintendent Dave Kramer spoke to the County Board Tuesday during an annual meeting of the Regional Railroad Authority. He told the board of the year's look into county rail crossings, and what to expect if the loan and project go through.
Last September, Kramer met with representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDot) and DM&E, looking at 16 rail crossings on county roads which don't currently have flasher and gate mechanisms.
During the September meeting, Kramer said that it was agreed that, if the tracks were revamped, trains could travel through the county at speeds up to 49 miles per hour. This would mean, Kramer explained, that crossings without the flashers and gates would have to be examined for safety, because the current county train speed limit is 30 miles per hour.
Kramer said that, of the 16 county road crossings, it was determined that each would need an upgrade to include the flasher and gate mechanisms because visibility would be affected if the trains were traveling at higher speed.
There are many more crossings in Winona County than just the 16 county road spots. Kramer said that they fall within other municipalities' control, like township roads. Some of these crossings don't currently even have stop signs, said Kramer, but if the expansion goes through, every one would need at least a stop sign to remain safe.
Any upgrades to rail crossings related to the proposed DM&E expansion, said Kramer, would come at the company's expense.
"But they're our dollars," said board member Marcia Ward, reminding the group that the expansion hinged on a large federal loan.
If the DM&E project is completed, Kramer said that the business would need to build an additional rail yard. The preliminary proposed location would be between Utica and Lewiston, just south of County Road 14 in Utica Township. Kramer said that this preliminary location might mean that Cemetery Road would have to be closed.
"That seems to have some significant impact on Lewiston," said Ward.
Kramer told the board that it was his suggestion that the proposed location be shifted slightly to the east, but added that the idea was still in a preliminary stage.
Other rail business
Kramer also detailed some issues with the rail crossings unrelated to the potential DM&E expansion.
One such crossing which was examined by MnDot is a crossing east of Lewiston on Rolling Hills Drive. The township road leads to the tracks on a gravel hill, said Kramer. He said that MnDot representative Julie Carr had discussed the possibility of closing the crossing altogether, because even if it had gates and lights, there was a potential for vehicles to slide through on ice or gravel.
Another crossing Kramer spoke to the board about was the Dresbach undercrossing project done a year ago. The crossing, he said, was narrow on the south end, and could pose an issue with safety vehicles in the event of an emergency. He said that there was discussion about opening up another crossing south of the spot, only for emergency vehicles.
In other business the board took the following action:
" Revised its travel policy for elected officials to state that any travel over 500 miles must be approved by a board vote;
" Approved a resolution for the Hal Leonard Corporation's use of the state's Job Z program for its expansion in the city's Technology Park, meaning the company would pay property taxes on its land, but not on new building property, through 2015; and
" Approved 2007 appointments to boards and committees.