Minnesota study shows millions needed for rail safety, including in Moorhead
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota needs to spend $244 million to improve railroad crossing safety where oil trains cross the state, the Minnesota Department of Transportation reported on New Year's Eve.
ST. PAUL - Minnesota needs to spend $244 million to improve railroad crossing safety where oil trains cross the state, the Minnesota Department of Transportation reported on New Year’s Eve.
Transportation officials already are spending $2 million the 2014 Legislature appropriated to improve crossings at places where rails and roads are at the same level. But the new report recommends building overpasses or underpasses at 15 other locations, with costs that can top $40 million each.
The report, which cost $93,000 to compile, was ordered by the 2014 Legislature so lawmakers would know the extent of the problem when they convene for their next session on Tuesday.
The number of trains hauling Bakken crude oil through Minnesota, to the East and Gulf coasts, has increased as North Dakota has become the No. 2 oil-producing state at more than 1 million barrels per day.
While no major oil train accidents have occurred in Minnesota, state officials have expressed concern that they could with more than 50 oil trains a week passing through the state, each usually with more than 100 cars. There have been explosive oil train accidents in other parts of the country, including one as close as eastern North Dakota near Casselton.
The busiest Minnesota oil route runs near and north of Interstate 94. Up to 44 trains a week go along the BNSF Railway line from Moorhead through the Twin Cities and south along the Mississippi River.
Up to seven trains go from Moorhead to Willmar and out of the state through Minnesota’s extreme southwestern corner. A similar number of trains enter from southern North Dakota, headed to the Twin Cities, then south along the Mississippi.
“The basic premise for effective improvements is safety,” Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said. “We are facing a continuing presence of crude-by-rail shipments across Minnesota. The safer transport of crude oil will reduce the public’s exposure to derailments, spills and fires that have already occurred in other states.”
But safety is expensive.
The $2 million already available is being spent on things like replacing missing or worn railroad warning signs and upgrading crossings to include flashing lights and-or crossing guards. The most expensive of those projects is $500,000, but some cost as little as $75,000.
Overpasses and underpasses, known as grade separations, are far more expensive. The least expensive is $10 million to $15 million at a rural two-lane road, MnDOT reports.
The MnDOT report used two proposed grade separation crossings in downtown Moorhead as examples. Costing about $40 million each, the new crossings would replace at-grade crossings that carry nearly 90 trains a day, about six of which haul oil.
The report indicates that the current crossings are safe, but trains block them up to 90 minutes a day and are “a serious detriment to emergency response in the city.”
Like in St. Paul, St. Cloud and other cities along the most-used oil route, the Moorhead tracks pass densely populated neighborhoods and many businesses.
State Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said Moorhead can expect even more trains, perhaps up to 11 a day in a few years, as North Dakota oilfields expand. Those trains, like the ones running today, also would go through other population centers, including the Twin Cities.
As Gov. Mark Dayton found at a series of rail safety summits he hosted last year, Eken said that blocked rail crossings can delay emergency services in the city.
Because of the expense, Eken said he hopes oil companies and others that benefit from hauling oil on rails “maybe could share some of the cost.”
An Eken bill that passed in 2014 requires a state examination of the North Dakota oil boom’s impact on Minnesota, both problems “as well as the opportunities,” he said.
If grade separation crossings are to be built, legislators may need to change state law. Many crossings where separations are requested do not meet current law, which only allows an underpass or overpass on roads with at least four lanes and traffic counts of several thousand a day. There also must have been a serious vehicle-train accident at the crossing.
MnDOT evaluated 100 high-priority crossings to determine whether the current installed protection is appropriate or can be improved. Forty sites were researched further, with nine sites determined to be suitable short-term improvement projects for the initial $2 million – Big Lake, Clear Lake, Elk River (two sites), Perham, St. Cloud, St. Paul Park, Wadena and Winona.
The MnDOT study only addressed railroad crossings. Eken’s report and others are to look into ways to make oil trains safer.