Dayton pressures railroads to pony up for safety upgrades across Minnesota

Industrials Associated Press

Gov. Mark Dayton gave railroad companies and Republicans a public tongue-lashing Friday for their resistance to his tax plan to fund safety improvements across Minnesota's railroad network.

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Seven trains haul North Dakota crude across Minnesota daily — an influx that has contributed to backlogs of agricultural shipments and raised safety concerns after a string of recent explosive derailments.

With a throng of officials from towns dealing with the headaches of heavier train traffic behind him, Dayton called it "totally unacceptable" that railroads would oppose contributing more money to the state's safety efforts. The governor and other fellow Democratic lawmakers have proposed a series of tax increases and annual fees on railroads to upgrade railroad crossings and ease congestion across Minnesota.

"That is the responsibility of the railroad," Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said of improvements.

By taxing train cars and levying an annual fee on Minnesota' four major freight railroads, the state would net $330 million over the next decade, mostly for improvements at railroad crossings. Dayton's plan would also fund increased training for first responders, including a new statewide training facility.

The governor is also planning to carve out $76 million from a bonding bill this year to build underpasses or overpasses in Moorhead, Prairie Island, Coon Rapids and Willmar, where passing trains block crossings for hours every day.

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Railroad companies such as BNSF Railway, the state's largest freight railroad and a major shipper of Bakken crude, balked at the governor's proposal. In a statement, spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the company believes Dayton's proposed taxes violate federal law "because they single out railroads for discriminatory taxation."

The other three major freight railroads operating in Minnesota are Canadian Pacific, Union Pacific and Canadian National.

Majority House Republicans have also signaled they're not on board with the tax increases.

"While the governor and I agree that our railroad crossings need improvements, the funding source is still the main issue," said Rep. Tim Kelly, the Republican chair of the House Transportation Finance committee.

Dayton criticized Republicans for not supporting his plan, but he saved his strongest words for the railroad companies.

The governor said state officials believe they're on solid legal ground to foot railroads with a larger tax bill. And he remained defiant in the face of a possible lawsuit from railroads if his proposal goes ahead.

"We're going to do what we know is right for Minnesota. If they want to take us to court, that certainly shows their true colors," Dayton said.