From its formative years, trains have rumbled through St. Paul, driving commerce.
They still do, to our economic benefit. For some, however, the “rumble” is just the beginning of concerns about a rail yard expansion.
There always will be tradeoffs, said Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, but St. Paul’s position as a rail hub gives us an advantage in the Upper Midwest that few other towns have.
For all the talk of regionalism, St. Paul remains a distinctive city from its twin across the river — one that should take seriously its heritage as a railroad center, as well as the lines’ continued place in our business infrastructure.
Three railroads — the Canadian Pacific, Union Pacific and Burlington Northern/Santa Fe — converge here. They maintain yards, employ workers and make investments — enterprise that’s “happening in St. Paul, not Minneapolis,” Kramer notes.
The lines’ investments “build on the economic development we have,” Kramer said, and provide a competitive advantage for businesses in the east metro that rely on rail. Because that efficient, reliable transportation is here, so are key industries and manufacturers.
The lines’ investments now mean that east metro businesses “will continue to be competitive for years to come,” Kramer said.
At issue is Canadian Pacific’s plan to expand its switching yard near Pigs Eye Lake. It involves filling about 6 acres of wetlands, removing about 4 wooded acres and extending six tracks more than a half-mile, the Pioneer Press reported earlier this month.
News reports about St. Paul backing down in the face of the company’s challenge were “a little unfair,” City Attorney Sara Grewing told us. St. Paul will argue that “we reserve our police powers here,” she said, to enforce fire, building and other codes “as they build this large project.”
But “we concede the reality of federal law,” Grewing said, the “pre-emption” that amounts to keeping railroads from dealing with “different regulations in every community they go through.”
St. Paul, however, “should be able to control its own destiny,” when it comes to such issues, Grewing said, arguing that the case highlights the need for change in federal legislation. The project, she said, raises concerns about everything from hazardous materials to the impact on wetlands and aquatic life. The future should involve figuring out a way to have “a local voice at the table.”
In media reports, City Council President Kathy Lantry has likened railroads and their latitude to that of “a sovereign nation.” She began working about four years ago with residents of the nearby Highwood neighborhood, which she represents, on increasing complaints about railroad noise.
In addition to the environmental impacts to an area with “some of the most protective zoning in the city of St. Paul,” Tom Dimond, a Highwood resident and former City Council member, maintains that Canadian Pacific is shifting traffic from other areas on its system to increase its profits.
A Calgary-based spokeswoman for Canadian Pacific told us the St. Paul yard is part of a critical transportation corridor, and that the expansion project will help ensure it has the capacity to meet the needs of the U.S. economy in future years.
The company believes the expansion will make train operations more efficient and reduce congestion, idling and noise related to switching operations.
The company’s statement notes its commitment to regulatory requirements, to “undertaking this project in a fashion that minimizes environmental and community impacts” and to engaging with members of the community on the changes.
Canadian Pacific started this process with what it called a “spirit of cooperation,” Grewing said. “We really hope that they would figure out a way to come back to the table” in that “spirit of cooperation.”
Meanwhile, the expansion compromises the goal to create more access to the river under the Great River Passage master plan, said Patrick Seeb, executive director of the St. Paul Riverfront Corp. He also acknowledges “the natural tension that is occurring” as St. Paul and the region continue to grow.
In that environment, we’re constantly in “all or nothing” arguments, Kramer said, “that somehow one side trumps the other.”
In the debate, trade-offs are to be expected, in particular when they involve economic advantages that set us apart.
Let’s not fall into this “one way or the other” trap, Kramer told us. “That’s not productive.”