Dayton highlights rail collision ahead of special session

Published 10:46 am Wednesday, June 10, 2015

ST. PAUL PARK — Gov. Mark Dayton visited the site of a weekend train collision on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to better fund rail safety improvements — one of several priorities the Democratic governor has outlined as he and the Legislature gear up for a special session as soon as later this week.

Mark Dayton

Mark Dayton

No injuries were reported in the accident Sunday in St. Paul Park, where a train hauling crude oil collided with a semitrailer carrying flour at a railroad crossing. But safety officials deemed the accident a near miss, and Dayton stood in front of the accident site to make his pitch.

“This is a microcosm of what’s happening all across Minnesota,” Dayton said. “We’re behind.”

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Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said he is willing to hear Dayton out, but doesn’t want the rail issue to hold up a special session.

The main unresolved budget bill, an energy and economic development plan, had come down to three items: a $5 million proposal to assist people with disabilities in job searches and those with mental illness to avoid homelessness; a law change enabling Iron Range taconite producers to negotiate more favorable electricity costs; and a move to change how utilities set power rates for residential customers who contribute energy to the grid, such as through rooftop solar panels.

“I very often have felt that these things should come together quickly and they never do,” Daudt said. “I know we’re down to the last few items and folks say it’s the last items that are the toughest.”

After relenting on a fight to preserve the state auditor’s duties that had held up a special session agreement, Dayton also issued a list of extra requests to lawmakers Monday, including additional money for broadband infrastructure grants and the state’s sex offender confinement program.

The Legislature needs to cobble together the final pieces of the state’s budget before a partial government shutdown takes hold on July 1. Dayton said he hopes to bridge the final disputes with House Republicans in time to call a special session by Friday, if not sooner.

The Legislature provided $5 million for rail grade crossing improvements in its budget passed in May, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe — Minnesota’s largest freight railroad — says it plans to invest $326 million this year for improvements in the state.

But Dayton says that pales in comparison to the needs at Minnesota railroad crossings, where 10 deaths were reported in accidents in 2014, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Amy McBeth, a spokeswoman for BNSF, said the company is working with St. Paul Park to close the crossing where Sunday’s collision occurred.

Dayton didn’t specify on Tuesday how much additional money he wants, nor did he make it a requirement to call a special session. But he keyed in on hundreds of millions of dollars the Legislature plans to leave unspent to pursue tax cuts and transportation spending next year as a funding source.

“To leave $1 billion lying on the bottom line when these types of projects are urgently needed for public safety is just astonishing to me,” he said.