ROCHESTER (AP) -- A federal report on the proposed expansion of the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad didn't answer a big question for residents in this southeastern Minnesota city.
The draft environmental impact statement from the Surface Transportation Board said that both a bypass south of Rochester and an upgrade of the railroad's current track through the city would have "significant" environmental effects, and it asked for more public comments on which would be worse.
State Rep. Bill Kuisle, R-Rochester, said he was disappointed the report didn't take a side on the bypass.
"I think all the politicians in the area were hoping for some kind of an end to this. We got zip," he said. "All it is doing is creating more fighting."
The federal board also unexpectedly recommended providing a connection route south of Mankato, rather than through the city.
"We were a bit surprised to see (the south route) given preference given the substantial environmental and agricultural impacts out there," said Dennis McCoy, Blue Earth County Administrator.
McCoy said it would take days to study the full report, but he knows one thing: "We are in opposition to the south route."
Battle lines were being reinforced Wednesday. In general, Rochester officials continued to support a bypass, while those representing rural areas oppose it.
Political, business and community leaders gathered at Rochester City Hall to publicize their effort to block the expansion.
Representatives of Citizens to Stop the Coal Trains set out to mobilize public opposition to the DM&E expansion and to prepare a detailed response to the environmental impact statement.
"We believe we can stop and we must stop the coal trains," said Sandy Keith, retired chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, who is co-chairman of the group.
Among other efforts, the group will try to get every resident of Rochester to write a letter to the Surface Transportation Board, opposing the project.
"I'd love to see them get 70,000 letters against this thing," Keith said.
The Surface Transportation Board historically has not blocked railroad expansion projects. Keith acknowledged that such a move in this case is unlikely.
"We're anticipating that this will indicate the coal train's a'comin' through Rochester," he said.
In Mankato, county and city officials had long ago dismissed the idea of a southern bypass, saying it would cause too much disruption and environmental damage.
But many people aren't keen on a route through the city, either.
"We're as absolutely opposed to a south route as we are to a route through Mankato," said Katy Wortel, a Mankato environmentalist who has been involved in a local group opposed to the line. "The only reasonable option is the no-build option."
The Brookings, S.D.-based railroad wants to expand its service into Wyoming and then haul coal east across South Dakota and Minnesota to the Mississippi River. The project would add 260 miles of new track and rebuild 600 miles of existing track through South Dakota and Minnesota.
The report points out that when bypasses are built, cities aren't usually required to pay for them. But it suggests Rochester's case may be different, since the bypass would benefit the city only and would be a "detriment" to the railroad.
Mayor Chuck Canfield expressed optimism that the transportation board might consider a bypass. "That is a positive sign," Canfield said.
Canfield said the city would help pay for a bypass, though he said he would expect the railroad to help pay, too.
On the Net:
DM&E Railroad: http://www.dmerail.com
Surface Transportation Board: http://www.stb.dot.gov
Stop the Coal Trains: http://www.stopthecoaltrains.com
Coal Train Issues Coalition: http://www.brookings.com/ctic/index.htm
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