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Commentary: Railroad merger will hit rural Minnesota hard

The following is a commentary for the Opinion that was submitted to the newspaper. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Echo Press.

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By State Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria

It’s not often that Class I, or very large, railroads seek to merge. In fact, it hasn’t happened in decades. Last year, Canadian Pacific (CP) and Kansas City Southern (KCS) announced their intent to change that when they filed a joint merger application with federal regulators. Now, as the Surface Transportation Board (STB) considers the merits of the merger, we must highlight how the $31 billion mega-merger will impact rural parts of our state. It might not seem like it at first, but it has the potential to fundamentally alter our character and way of life.

Railroad mergers are notoriously difficult to implement. Unfamiliar and ramped-up rail traffic will require significant track upgrades, slowing the movement of commodities. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) noted the possibility of service disruptions in the agricultural sector for this very reason. These growing pains will hurt farmers’ bottom lines as they struggle to get their products to market. In the same filing, the USDA called on CP and KCS to submit a service assurance plan to provide farmers with some peace of mind — an idea the companies have resisted up until this point.

Aside from disrupting service and slowing local traffic, the merger also poses significant financial hardship on our community. The Minnesota Department of Transportation reports that designing and building a traditional railroad crossing arm costs between $100,000 and $200,000. Broadly speaking, an increase in railroad traffic will necessitate such improvements, so where will rural communities come up with the funding? Some may cite federal grants as a solution, but those are almost totally dependent on population. Larger towns end up with more money, which is no comfort to rural Minnesota. It’s clear that companies are pursuing this deal without our best interests in mind. Non-metropolitan areas deserve more assistance, not less.

The railroad bisects several rural towns, many of which have limited first responder options. Should a train pass through these more isolated areas, it would cut off the town’s only firefighters and paramedics from rescuing those in need. Avoiding these tragic situations, dubbed “soul trains,” would require a significant infrastructure overhaul, including grade separation and overpasses. Meanwhile, in urban centers, emergency services from nearby communities can lend a hand in the event of a long train crossing.

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Rural communities simply don’t boast the same options, nor receive the same attention in this merger as our urban counterparts. But this deal affects all of Minnesota, not just the Twin Cities. Our state’s long support of this industry surely warrants more goodwill than we’re seeing — something we should tell the STB through public comments under docket number “FD36500.”

For these reasons, the STB should demand more from CP and KCS as it considers the merger. Most of the dialogue surrounding the proposal is about how the merger will affect crowded, populated cities up and down the railroad. That doesn’t mean that our concerns can be waved aside and ignored. Rural Minnesota stands to lose out on our quality of life and sense of community if the STB approves this merger. It’s time our federal government stands up for our parts of the country and addresses our concerns.

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