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The war of words over DM&E

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Rochester Rally
Opponents of the DM&E expansion rallied at the Peace Plaza in Rochester.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

At it's heart, this fight is over trains. That quickly became clear during a recent debate on KROC radio in Rochester.  

"The studio is full of people," says host Tracy McCray. "We're talking about the DM & E trains. And DM & E president Kevin Schieffer is here. Good morning sir!" 

Kevin Schieffer
Kevin Schieffer spoke at Rochester's Downtown Rotary Club. He says the federal government has his financial data, and no one else needs it.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

In the studio along with Schieffer is Steve Ryan a lawyer with the Rochester Coalition which opposes the expansion. Members of the coalition include the Rochester City Council, the Mayo Clinic, Olmsted County and the Rochester Chamber of Commerce. 

On the air it was a battle of numbers, starting with the number of trains that would run through Rochester if the D M and E plan is successful. The Coalition claims  it will be 34 coal trains a day, each a mile-long, each moving at 40 miles per hour. Schieffer says it won't. 

The D M and E  proposal has been in the works for eight years, but the debate is heating up now because the Federal Railroad Administration is taking comments on the environmental impact of the railroad. It ends October 10th. And when its done then the F.R.A. will have 90 days to decide whether D M and E can receive the largest federal loan in at least three decades.

Both sides have launched public relations assaults. Schieffer is leading the pro-expansion effort.

On the day Schieffer spoke on KROC he also spoke to the Downtown Rotary Club's luncheon.  On Friday he spoke at a public hearing with U-S Representative Gil Gutknecht, Senator Norm Coleman and Department of Transportation Undersecretary Jeff Shane. A few hours later he met with democratic congressional candidate Tim Walz. 

Members of GOTRAC the pro-expansion coalition were also present.  GoTRAC represents the interests of farming groups, ethanol producers and electricity coops who see an improved rail line as vital to their business interests. Schieffer says he's interested in public discourse.

"And by debate I don't mean a big brawl match," he says. "I think a public decent honest public discourse lay out the issues there are so many misperceptions probably on both sides." 

DM&E locomotive
DM&E locomotive
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

But Schieffer stresses by public discourse he means holding public discussions with the Rochester Coalition. No other negotiation with the 55 other cities along the line have been public. If Schieffer's recent statements are any indication, no information about D M and E's financial status or hauling contracts will be disclosed.

"The evidence is in the record," he says. "And people who know how to look at these things and evaluate them are going to make their decision. It is not for me to say how much the railroad is worth. I certainly have a view on it." 

The Rochester Coalition has requested meetings with D M and E as recently as the last few days, but it won't negotiate in public. 

Like the railroad the anti-expansion group is trying to engage the public. It's rolled out a campaign called Track the Truth. 

A public rally in downtown Rochester launched the campaign. Organizers distributed t-shirts, lawn signs, petitions and placards to about 200 people. The Mayo Clinic's Chris Gade says the coalition now has a Website. It's also running full-page newspaper ads and radio spots. Billboards are also part of the campaign to reach the public. 

"One of the things that we've discovered over the last two or three weeks is that if they better understand its essence they're more likely to express concern over it," he says. "We feel like it's very difficult for people to grasp and appreciate the magnitude of what this proposal might mean. We're trying to pain that picture more effectively." 

Gade says Mayo is paying for the media campaign He won't say how much, but he will say as much as it takes.

Coalition leaders have also held a string of press conferences demanding that D M and E clarify its financial situation and its safety record. At an event in the backyard of a Rochester home on the D M and E route coalition lawyer Steve Ryan called for full-disclosure as the F.R.A. considers the D M and E loan.

"What we're looking at is a completely opaque procedure where the Department of Transportation is dealing directly with the railroad, but the American public can't see who they're being asked to give this money to," he said. 

In addition the Coalition filed a legal brief with the F.R.A. calling for more disclosure.

Both parties have more than billboards and personality on their sides. D M and E recently hired Jafar Karim as its public relations director. He's the former legislative director for then South Dakota Congressman, now U-S Senator, John Thune. Thune and Schieffer are long-time friends. 

The pro-expansion GOTRAC initiative also has its own public relations team. 

The Coalition has hired Weber Shandwick Worldwide for public relations. Mayo Clinic also has former South Dakota governor Bill Janklow and railroad expert Larry Mann on its payroll supporting the coalition effort.

Both sides encourge comments to be submitted to the F-R-A, and both sides claim the other is bending the truth. After eight years of discussion, the D M and E proposal finally seems to be on the fast track. The F-R-A could make its decision by by the end of this year.