(AP) Sen. Norm Coleman said Thursday that he will oppose an expansion plan by the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad unless the Department of Transportation comes up with a plan to address the concerns of the Mayo Clinic.
"I need to soon see a mitigation plan," Coleman, R-Minn., said in a conference call with reporters. "If there isn't a plan, then I'll do everything in my prerogatives as senator to stop this project, either through the appropriation process or the legislation process."
Coleman said he wants to see a plan by the end of the year.
The DM&E secured federal regulatory approval for the project earlier, but it is now seeking approval for a $2.3 billion loan from the Transportation Department's Federal Railroad Administration.
The project would rebuild 600 miles of track across South Dakota and Minnesota and add 260 miles of new track to reach Wyoming's Powder River Basin coal mines. It would cost an estimated $6 billion, with $2.3 billion coming from the federal loan and the rest from private funding.
The Mayo Clinic and the city of Rochester, Minn., oppose the project, arguing the increased rail traffic could threaten the safety of the clinic's patients. The rail line runs only a few blocks away from the Mayo Clinic, which wants DM&E to build a bypass around the city.
John Wade, president of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, said, "We very much appreciate Norm Coleman's involvement and advocacy on behalf of the Mayo Clinic and the city of Rochester."
The Federal Railroad Administration issued a statement saying it had received Coleman's request for a study in September.
"We appreciate the concerns expressed by the senator and have placed his letter in the public docket to be thoroughly and fully considered as the loan application review process continues to move forward," the statement said.
DM&E President Kevin Schieffer said in a statement, "The DM&E Railroad would welcome negotiations on mitigation for Rochester."
In ratcheting up the pressure, Coleman is taking the baton from fellow Minnesota Sen. Mark Dayton, a Democrat who is retiring. While not declaring that the railroad would enter Rochester "over my dead body," as Dayton famously did, Coleman is nonetheless drawing a line in the tracks.
"If the concerns of the Mayo Clinic are not satisfied," he said, "this project won't go forward."
Coleman said Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters has offered to come to Rochester.
"My response at this point is, we don't need more meetings," he said. "We simply need to know, is there a plan? Is there a way to mitigate the concerns?"
Coleman said he was still hopeful a plan could be worked out.
"Is it building tunnels? There's a whole range of things," he said.
And he said he was confident he could block the project by winning legislation to prevent the loan.
"I presume I can get a pretty broad bipartisan coalition - conservatives who are concerned about the funding itself, environmentalists who are concerned about the impact on the environment," he said.