Lawmakers take aim at oil train safety in Minnesota

According to MnDOT, about 15 oil trains roll through Minnesota each day.

One such train last month left Minnesota and headed to West Virginia, where it derailed, forcing more than 100 residents to evacuate their homes.

Now, Rep. Frank Hornstein (D-Minneapolis) and other lawmakers are looking to make Minnesota's rail lines safer, especially at 100 critical crossings.

One of the most at-risk crossings in the state is at Como Avenue in St. Paul, right in the midst of a densely populated neighborhood. A crash or derailment at that crossing could mean disaster.

Future plans call for separating the tracks from Como Ave., but that comes with an estimated price tag of $25 million.

Hornstein's bill would help pay for that via new assessments to railroads forcing them to collectively contribute up to $32 million a year.

Another bill authored by Rep. Paul Marquart (D-Dilworth) is still in the drafting stage, but would raise more than $20 million by levying a property tax on the railroads.

Lawmakers believe an accident inside a Minnesota community is perhaps just a matter of time.

"We can't afford to leave any stone unturned when it comes to safety," Hornstein says.

Fox 9 contacted the BNSF government affairs specialist Brian Sweeney for his take on these bills. He hasn't gotten back to us as this is published.

But Sweeney has testified several times at the Capitol in recent months that the railroad is already investing $300 million to add capacity and increase safety along its tracks here in Minnesota.

::: UPDATE ::::

As this was being published, Fox 9 received this statement from the Minnesota Regional Railroads Association:

This morning several legislators held a press conference regarding railroad tax and safety issues.

The following is a statement from John Apitz, legislative counsel to the Minnesota Regional Railroads Association.

"The proposals discussed at today's press conference add up to nearly $100 million per year in new tax increases on the railroad industry in Minnesota. These tax increases would have a major impact on shippers, farmers, grain companies, mining companies, retailers and others that use rail as a cost-effective way to move goods.

These proposals ignore both federal law and the more than $500 million in safety and service improvements that railroads will be making in Minnesota in 2015, alone.

Short line railroads -- the farm-to-market connectors -- will be especially hard hit by the new property tax. Short lines work on extremely small margins. Tripling their property taxes will hurt these small business and the customers who rely on them.

As we learned with other taxes that lawmakers have imposed these costs will get passed along to railroad customers and ultimately consumers.

A couple years ago, they proposed warehousing sales tax increases and other business-to-business taxes. This is more of the same.

Safety is extremely important and railroads devote enormous resources to safe operations. The four Class I railroads will invest approximately $500 million in capital improvements in Minnesota in 2015.

Lastly, the proposed property tax increase on railroads is prohibited under the federal 4-R Act, which prevents states from taxing railroads differently from other commercial/industrial entities."

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