Political Freight

A host of Minnesota politicians say pork-barrel spending on a railroad expansion project threatens the Mayo Clinic

Each side says the other refuses to negotiate. And each has marshaled a host of federal statistics to buttress its case about the safety ramifications as well. In a December 4 letter to the FRA, an attorney working for the opposition coalition said DM&E has "one of the worst safety records of any railroad in the country" and that its record on upgraded track is actually worse than on old rails.

"Since 2004, the DM&E has had at least four and possibly as many as seven accidents on new track and at least 20 accidents on improved track," the letter asserts. "In fact, during that time period, a growing portion of DM&E derailments has occurred on new and improved track. DM&E's main-track derailments on new and upgraded track increased from 3 of 37 in 2004, to 12 of 28 in 2005, and to 8 of 17 in the first seven months of 2006."

As further evidence against DM&E's argument that the federal money will buy public safety, the letter also claims that the railroad spent none of a 2004 federal loan on new track. Instead, the company used the $233 million—the largest FRA loan to date—to refinance past expansion activities.

DM&E countered that its safety record is in fact getting better, but did not address the question of how its past loan was spent. "But the accidents...cited demonstrate in compelling terms the need for this project," Schieffer fired back in a letter of his own to the FRA, also dated December 4. "We are delighted that it was submitted by Mayo, and encourage you to look into each and every accident cited as a demonstration of why this project is so important to improving safety."

With a high number of frail patients clustered around the tracks, the consequences of any accident could be catastrophic, however. More trains mean more chances for something to go wrong, and higher speeds mean accidents are more likely to be serious, says Mayo spokesman Chris Gade. Because the tracks travel through downtown Rochester, any accident involving the release of hazardous chemicals has the potential to harm thousands of people, he says. Not only can't the clinic just evacuate critically ill patients, some spills could create "hot zones" not even emergency personnel could enter. And even if safety does improve, in other accidents in recent years the rupture of even a single tank car has caused multiple deaths.

DM&E's claim that 54 of the 56 communities along the line are in favor of the proposal creates a false impression, opponents also argue. Some of the towns cited by the railroad are tiny—one has six residents—and Rochester is home to more than 40 percent of the affected population. Plus, there are a number of affected communities, including Winona, that don't get a say because DM&E trains run through them on tracks owned by other railroads—in Winona's case Canadian Pacific.

Further clouding matters is the incredibly complex system used to track rail safety, says Larry Kaufman, a columnist and former transportation editor for Business Week who has followed the controversy. "Do you know what a derailment is? It's any time a wheel makes one whole revolution off the rail," he says, explaining that safety records can be used to prop up conflicting arguments. He doesn't buy either side's case on the safety issue, which he views as a red herring.

There are plenty of reasons to not want trains hurtling through the neighborhood, Kaufman continues, citing noise and vibrations. But in his opinion, the real problem is the financial structure of the deal. "If there is economic merit to the DM&E proposal, then there are people in our society whose business it is to finance these things," he says. "And why, if there is no merit, is the federal government interested in financing it?"

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