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Minnesota transport officials propose spending up to $5 billion to improve rail

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TCW Rail Company President Mark Wegner
Twin Cities and Western Rail Company President Mark Wegner.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

For years, rail advocates have touted the environmental and financial advantages of moving people and freight by rail. Now they have support from Minnesota transportation officials, who propose investing billions of dollars over the next 20 years in improved rail service. The snag is where to find the money.  

Freight and passenger rail service in this country reached a high point in the World War II era.  But the rise of cars and truck transport -- combined with cheap gas -- were  already signaling the demise of rail.  

In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed an act creating the interstate highway system, and the country soon had a continental road network that would greatly expand the movement of people and goods on roads instead of  rail.     The 9000 miles of rail in Minnesota, that were the lifeline and economic underpinning for countless small towns,  have shriveled by half. Much of the track is in good condition but rails and roadbed on hundreds of miles operated by regional haulers, called shortlines, have deteriorated.

Minnesota Department of Transportation officials have proposed finding up to $5 billion to spend over the next 20 years to help restore and rebuild Minnesota's freight rail infrastructure, as part of the state's overall transportation plan earlier this year. 

State officials propose three-quarters of that money come from railroad companies.

Mark Wegner, president of Twin Cities and Western and the Minnesota Prairie Line, said it will be a challenge. TCW is one of Minnesota's 14 shortlines. 

"With internally generated revenue they could maybe come up with half of that," Wegner said. 

Wegner's trains carry corn, soybeans, sugar, ethanol and other bulk commodities from town to town along the line.

Even with train speeds of only 30 miles an hour, Wegner's customers prefer freight rail because a rail car can carry three times more weight than a truck, at one-third the cost.

Heavy trucks, experts agree, take a ferocious toll on the roads.

State representative Mike Beard said trucking companies are routinely granted waivers to carry heavier loads that hasten road wear. The Shakopee Republican says railroads deserve more public investment to help restore balance to the state's transportation system.

"If we're going to continue to do that, and not make trucks pay their way, and that's a public policy decision then I think it's only reasonable and fair that we help these railroad authorities rebuild their roadbeds too," Beard said. 

Wegner and other rail advocates say taxpayers should consider larger rail subsidies because of the benefits including reduction of traffic congestion, green house gas emissions, safety and improved roads.

Minnesota lawmakers this session approved $7 million help the state's shortline haulers improve rail bed and other infrastructure.

At the federal level, Congress is considering a tax credit to help rail companies write off some maintenance expenses. 

Another possible source of cash for freight rail companies is leasing some of their track to companies or units of government for passenger rail. 

The outlook is all of those sources and others will be needed to build and maintain rail lines in an economy where the volume of all freight over the next three decades is expected to double.

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