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Rail safety fight rolls into election politics

Freight rail companies have enjoyed a surge in profits in recent years, thanks in part to the Bakken oil boom. But the profits have come with new political peril, as elected officials — on the DFL side especially — have taken up the cause of oil train safety with gusto.

Some 326,000 Minnesotans live within a half mile of freight tracks, and fiery train crashes elsewhere are raising concerns about similar incidents closer to home.

In recent weeks, Minneapolis City Council members passed a resolution on oil train safety; Gov. Mark Dayton wrote a letter to BNSF Railways expressing concern about more trains coming through the western suburbs to downtown Minneapolis; and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken demanded more communication between rail companies and state and local officials to improve safety.

DFLers are seizing on the reignited tensions between railroads and local communities, particularly those in closely contested legislative districts where they hope to chain Republicans to the train industry and pick up the votes they need to win control of the state House.

Democrats are scrambling to pick up six seats in a fierce battle to reclaim the House and tip the balance of power at the Capitol, where DFLers already hold the Senate and the governor’s office. Republicans are fighting just as hard to hold those seats and ensure political balance in St. Paul.

Democrats are eyeing freshman GOP Rep. Jeff Backer’s district in western Minnesota, as well as Republican incumbents Rep. Tim Kelly in Red Wing and Rep. Jim Knoblach in St. Cloud, among several others. And, in a landscape of vanishing elected Democrats in rural districts, they hope the issue will protect their own incumbents like Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth.

“This is about safety, not politics,” Marquart said.

Republicans say the DFL is trying to stoke railroad anxiety for political gain.

“I’ve seen a lot of issues where it seems like the Democrats are trying to gin people up. This is just one of many examples,” said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

Daudt said Republicans are also concerned about rail safety, and expect to set aside more money for rail safety next year.

Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, who also represents an area of Coon Rapids with what has proved to be a problematic rail intersection at Hanson Boulevard, is less combative. He said he wants to work with railroads to get them to pay for work on a limited number of intersections, like the one at Hanson, so that emergency vehicles do not get stuck on the wrong side of the tracks.

Although this latest fight over rail arose only recently with the boom in the Bakken, it is not without historical precedent. The vast market power of the railroads was a source of bitter anti-rail sentiment among 19th-century Midwestern farmers and helped launch political movements, the Nonpartisan League in particular, and progressivism more broadly, said Minnesota historian Annette Atkins.

Now, oil trains with 100 or more tank cars filled with Bakken crude oil cross the state at a rate of 28 to 48 trains per week on BNSF tracks. Canadian Pacific carries seven to 11 oil trains through the state per week, according to its most recent disclosures.

Related: Governor criticizes BNSF for rerouting oil trains into downtown Minneapolis

Crude-by-rail has faced scrutiny since the July 2013 oil train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killed 47. Accidents involving autos and trains had been declining for a decade, but increased in 2014 by more than 20 percent to 63, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. There were also 45 train derailments in 2014, according to the state Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

The Minnesota Regional Railroads Association released a statement saying the industry is getting safer all the time. Since 1980, the association says, the number of U.S. train accidents declined 79 percent and grade crossing collisions dropped 81 percent, according to records from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Amy McBeth, a spokeswoman for BNSF, said in the past decade the company’s accident rate fell 43 percent, including 6 percent between 2013 and 2014.

Still, public attention is fixed on rail safety with every new incident, most recently a derailment that spilled at least 18,000 gallons of ethanol into the Mississippi River near Alma, Wis. Drivers in small communities across Minnesota sit at rail crossings for as long as 30 minutes as the Bakken rail cars roll by. Police and fire officials are concerned about emergency vehicles getting stuck on one side of the tracks.

Rail industry officials privately grumble about a deluge of what they say is misinformation and are fighting back with a sophisticated lobbying effort.

When Dayton proposed spending $33 million a year on rail safety and crossing improvements, including a special levy on the rail companies, their lobbyists threatened a lawsuit over discriminatory taxation. House Republicans, who are in the majority, wound up allotting $5 million for rail safety without taxing the companies.

The Minnesota Regional Railroads Association, BNSF and the Twin Cities & Western Railroad Co. spent at least $220,000 lobbying the 2014 Legislature, the most recent year of lobbying spending disclosures.

Because of their role shipping cargo between states, most freight traffic is subject to federal regulation.

On that front, the industry is an influence powerhouse, having spent $316 million on lobbying since a 2008 federal law mandated adoption of an expensive technology to prevent accidents, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. After the intense lobbying effort, the government postponed the mandate until at least 2018.

And, the rail industry is spending big to help supportive candidates, having spent $9 million on federal races in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Industry giving in Minnesota campaigns increased from $450 in 2012 to $51,350 in 2014, according to the Institute on Money in State Politics. BNSF gave $85,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee in 2014, a group that supports GOP causes in all 50 states.

But the industry says it is also spending money on safety, including $500 million by the four big companies on capital improvements just in Minnesota this year. The industry also says it has taken voluntary measures like slower speeds to reduce risk.

MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle said the relationship with the railroads is “complicated,” especially after the fight over Dayton’s rail-safety plan.

Zelle said he was encouraged by signals of collaboration, citing a recent effort by industry and elected officials at all levels to win a $10 million federal grant to build a rail bypass on the west side of Willmar.

Zelle also said Dayton had a productive conversation with BNSF CEO Carl Ice after the governor’s letter protesting the new train traffic in downtown Minneapolis.

But with train traffic a persistent concern, collegiality between DFL leaders and the rail industry will likely be tested. Zelle offered this reminder: “The governor works for all the people of Minnesota, not the shareholders of BNSF.”

Staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.

This article was written by J. Patrick Coolican from Star Tribune and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.