To get anywhere in Brookings you have to cross a railroad track. Residents cross the tracks a half-dozen times a day to get around. The line runs right through the middle of Brookings and some houses back up to the track. Residents never expected the struggling railroad to be much more than a charming nuisance.
But now the DM&E railroad wants to expand. The company is positioning itself to run as many as 34 trains each day on the track through Brookings. The plan is to upgrade the existing track and extend the line into Wyoming's Powder River Basin. The trains will haul coal through South Dakota and southern Minnesota to eastern destinations.
In March, the city council signed an agreement with DM&E. It outlines a number of track improvements and safety enhancements; everything from the kind of crossing gates used to who will pay for them.
Steve Britezman, Brookings city attorney, says he crosses the tracks about eight times a day. He thinks the agreement is good for the city because it will require safety measures that are more stringent than the government proposed. Britzman says short of an over or under pass at each intersection, what's called quad gates are the safest.
"We have not just two gates but four for each lane of traffic, together with concrete medians to prevent people from driving around the gates," Britezman explains. "Those are well beyond what is ordered and what would be required."
As part of the deal the DM&E agreed to pick up the 10 percent cost for upgrades. The other 90 percent of the tab traditionally is paid for by federal grants. But it's not guaranteed. That's one of the reasons people gathered signatures to put the agreement to a public vote.
Karen Cardenas, chairman of the Committee for a Safer Brookings, says her group isn't opposed to the safer gates. She wants them installed especially near the high school where students may be tempted to outrun a train. But she wants stronger language in the agreement so the city doesn't get stuck with the bill.
"I think we need to say if this is a partnership agreement then the city of Brookings will do this and the DM&E will do that," Cardenas says. "And it will not be 90 percent our financial responsibility and only 10 percent DM&E. The DM&E is the entity that stands to profit from this."
The community is united on one issue: everyone wants a bypass. Then the 34 trains expected each day would go around not through the city. City Attorney Steve Britzman says the agreement with DM&E doesn't limit the city from working on a bypass proposal. It's not clear who would pay for the significant costs of that plan.