ST. PAUL PARK, Minn. - Gov. Mark Dayton visited the site of an oil train-truck wreck Tuesday to press his case for more Minnesota rail safety funding.
A collision between a BNSF Railway Co. crude oil train and a semi-truck in St. Paul Park Sunday reignited calls for more rail safety spending. Dayton and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith visited the crash site Tuesday and said the wreck underscored the need to prevent such incidents before they happen, or before they get worse.
The cause of the crash is under investigation, but there were no injuries and no crude oil was spilled. The truck was hauling flour, which spilled at the crash site.
“This really was a tragedy averted,” said Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, “and a strong signal that we need to do more.”
Schoen is a Cottage Grove police officer.
Dayton has traveled the state talking about rail safety.
“I don’t want people to be overly alarmed and not be able to sleep at night because of their proximity (to the railroad), because the odds are miniscule,” Dayton said, “but still we have to do everything we possibly can because public safety is our first responsibility.”
An estimated 326,170 Minnesotans live within a half mile of railroad tracks that carry oil, a distance considered the "danger zone."
There were 59 freight train accidents in the state last year, with 10 resulting in deaths, according to Bill Gardner, director of Minnesota Department of Transportation’s freight planning division.
Up to seven oil trains pass through Minnesota a day, carrying western North Dakota crude oil. So far, Minnesota has gone without major accidents with explosions and fires that have been seen elsewhere in the United States and Canada.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Katie Sieben said the state needs to provide money to make rail crossings safer.
“We don’t want to wait for a tragedy to happen, a massive tragedy here in Minnesota, for the need for the Legislature to act,” said Sieben, a Democrat who represents the St. Paul Park area. “The Senate put forward a plan, and the Republican (House) failed to act on that plan, because their insistence on no taxes. It’s really pretty outrageous that we are not seeing any action on this.”
Some Democratic legislators called for raising an existing assessment on railroads and expanding property taxes to raise $100 million for rail safety. Dayton proposed $33 million a year for the next decade.
The compromise adopted by the Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-led House included $5 million for rail safety improvements and nearly $1 million to establish emergency response teams in St. Cloud and Duluth that could be used in fiery rail crashes.
Also, a public works financing bill legislative leaders negotiated last week would build new railroad crossings in Willmar, Plymouth and Rainy River.
Dayton said that he wants a special session that he will call to finish the budget to increase rail safety spending, but that prospect looks unlikely.
The Dayton administration has released a list of 75 railroad crossings that need improvement, ranging from expensive raise crossings to closing them, like is planned for the St. Paul Park crossing.
St. Paul Park City Administrator Kevin Walsh said that costs to close and upgrade the intersection are more than $1.1 million, excluding nearby roadwork and future maintenance that would be involved.
Amy McBeth, regional director of public affairs for BNSF, said the rail company has offered $100,000 to go with $500,000 from MNDOT for the work.
“One of several efforts we undertake to improve safety is to work to close crossings on our network to limit potential risk,” McBeth said. “We’ve closed more than 5,700 at-grade crossings on our network. Overall, the rate of grade crossing accidents has decreased by more than 80 percent through these and other efforts.”
Don Davis contributed to this story.