Major railroads refuse to pay new state fee meant to improve safety

Major railroads refuse to pay new state fee meant to improve safety

Major railroads refuse to pay new state fee meant to improve safety

The two largest freight railroad companies operating in Minnesota have told state officials they are not going to make the roughly $1 million payment that’s required under a new state law intended to improve rail safety.

BNSF and CPKC both sent letters last month to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety indicating that, while they are committed to safety, they will not pay the bill because the new state law is “pre-empted by federal law.”

State Senator Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), one of the lawmakers who wrote the law, called it “disappointing.”

“This was like a bolt out of the blue and a complete shock,” Dibble said.

The new law, which passed during the 2023 session, collects roughly $1 million annually from each of the major freight railroad companies in Minnesota. The money is intended to go towards a number of public safety needs, including emergency preparedness, training, and staffing costs.

The new law comes after the derailment in the community of Raymond one year ago. The BNSF train was carrying ethanol and the derailment led to the evacuation of hundreds of people in the middle of the night.

Both BNSF and CPKC referred 5 INVESTIGATES to the Minnesota Regional Railroads Association. Executive Director Amber Backhaus sent a lengthy statement with safety statistics — including that train accidents in Minnesota are down 46%.

The statement also says all the railroads already train first responders and suggested the new fee is unfair because the state doesn’t collect a similar contribution from other transportation modes that move hazardous materials.

Dibble disagrees with any notion that the law is illegal.

“I think that’s hogwash,” Dibble said. “The railroads are always resisting any efforts we make toward public safety improvements toward their industry by citing federal preemption. They’re almost always wrong, and I’m sure they’re wrong in this case, as well.”

Dibble said if they continue to refuse to pay, the state may have to file a lawsuit.

The concern from state lawmakers is also shared by U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who recently sent a letter to the Association of American Railroads calling the trajectory of the safety performance of major railroads “unacceptable.”

Buttigieg called on railroads to work with regulators to improve safety.