Mayo Clinic collides with coal trains

Mayo Clinic collides with coal trains

Trains rumble slowly through downtown about three times a day, blocking traffic for a few minutes on the threshold of the Mayo Clinic.

The inconvenience isn’t a big deal to many of this city’s 95,000 residents. “Trains are romantic” and played a key role in the area’s history, says John Hunkele, 50, a baker.

But a plan by the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad (DM&E) to run mile-long trains loaded with coal through here daily has fueled a bitter eight-year battle pitting the famous clinic and its hometown against a growing railroad.

On one side is DM&E, which is based in Sioux Falls, S.D. It wants to expand into a 2,762-mile network carrying coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. DM&E President Kevin Schieffer says eight coal trains could come through here daily.

Dozens of towns, farm bureaus, electric utilities and economic development groups support the expansion. Schieffer says it “serves a compelling national interest.”

On the other side are Rochester’s Chamber of Commerce, city and county governments and the Mayo Clinic ”” this city’s biggest employer. They say as many as 34 trains could come through a day, blocking traffic and emergency vehicles. Because the trains could carry hazardous materials as well as coal, they also worry that a derailment would prompt Mayo’s patients to go elsewhere, which could ruin the local economy.

“If a spill should occur, it would be international news,” says Kenneth Brown, chairman of the Olmsted County Board of Commissioners. “Then when somebody needs to go to the doctor, they’ll say, ‘Maybe I should go to the Cleveland Clinic or Johns Hopkins.’ ”

The fight began in 1998 when DM&E sought approval to expand and upgrade its tracks from the Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that regulates railroads. The Rochester coalition has tried to block the project since then.

The transportation board approved the project, and a federal appeals court backed its decision. Now Rochester is trying to prevent the Federal Railroad Administration from giving DM&E a $2.5 billion loan to finance the expansion. A decision could come soon.

There are 56 towns along the DM&E route across South Dakota and Minnesota. All except Rochester, the largest, have signed agreements that spell out improvements DM&E would make, such as noise barriers and upgraded crossings.

In Springfield, Minn., Mayor Mark Brown, who lives a half-block from the tracks, says he once had qualms about the coal trains. “But if you want economic growth in rural Minnesota, you just sometimes have to bite the bullet,” he says. Being close to the rail line means Springfield might get an ethanol plant and 40 jobs, he says.

In Brookings, S.D., opponents of the project are trying to get a measure on the November ballot to repeal the town’s agreement with the railroad.

Resistance is most adamant in Rochester, where City Council President Dennis Hanson says, “The railroad doesn’t understand how unique this community is.”

Industry and wealth arrived here with the first railroad in the 1860s. By the 1930s, passenger trains were bringing patients to the Mayo Clinic. Today, trains carry mostly freight but also deliver coal.

The Mayo Clinic, which is run by a charitable foundation, dominates the economy. Kings, presidents and celebrities come here for treatment.

“What’s good for Mayo is what’s good for Rochester,” says Mayor Ardell Brede, a retired Mayo employee. “What’s good for Rochester is good for Minnesota and beyond.”

Jeff Korsmo, Mayo’s chief administrative officer, says opponents of the railroad project are “not trying to say we’re better than anybody else. We’re just saying we have an important asset for the state and the country, really, that we have a responsibility to protect. … We have to be a safe place.”

Korsmo and other opponents say DM&E can’t afford to repay the loan, so it should be rejected. If not, they hope to persuade DM&E to route trains on another line elsewhere. If that doesn’t work, they want the railroad to help pay for underpasses, overpasses or a tunnel.

Rochester’s fight with the railroad has created hard feelings in Washington, too. U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., has vowed to lay down on the tracks to keep the coal trains away. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., a former DM&E lobbyist, added language to a transportation funding bill that he says encourages all railroads to improve their operations. Kenneth Brown, the county board chairman, says there’s “no question” Thune was helping DM&E.

Thune says the project would create jobs in his home state and ease the energy crunch. “I am sympathetic” to Rochester’s concerns, he says. “But they kind of dug in. … If they had been more at the table, they probably would have gotten a much better agreement.”

U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht, a Republican whose district includes Rochester, says his focus is on minimizing the trains’ impact here. “What I don’t want to do is kill the railroad” project, he says.

Antipathy between officials here and the railroad is complicating matters. Mayor Brede says, “You cannot negotiate in good faith” with DM&E President Schieffer.

The railroad executive’s reply: “I’m willing to spend whatever money it takes to address legitimate problems. I’m not going to build a ‘chunnel’ under the Zumbro River (in Rochester) to satisfy somebody’s ego or for political reasons.”

Michael LaPlante, who works in Mayo’s medical records department, is president of the Eastside Pioneers Neighborhood Association. The tracks are a few blocks from his house.

“We’ve been fighting so long, and we’re always having to rise one more time,” he says.


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