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Railroad crossings staying open

The Perham City Council and Township weren't swayed by efforts to close two railroad crossings within city and township limits, despite arguments made by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad.

The issue arose when MnDOT designated the 450th and 425th Street crossings as "high-risk," based on a formula used by the department that measures traffic use and accident history, among other factors.

The city and township were offered three options -- if no deals were met, the issue would have gone to the Commissioner of Transportation, who would have made up the city and township's minds for them.

The federal government, through the Department of Transportation, offered the city a deal that would have covered costs associated with erecting crossing lights and arms at the 425th Street crossing, but only if the city closed the 450th Street crossing, located on the same line. MnDOT and BNSF would then throw in $50,000 each, to be split between Perham Township and the city.

A second offer made by MnDOT included a plan for crossing lights and arms at both crossings -- but with only 90 percent funded through federally available funds. The remaining funds would fall on the city and township.

Though BNSF and MnDOT did not have hard figures on the cost of installing crossing arms and lights, MnDOT Rail Administration Manager Sue Aylesworth said in an interview earlier this month that the average cost is $450,000.

A letter delivered to the city on behalf of Aylesworth stated that, if 450th is closed, a deal could also be worked out to use saved funds from the closure to pay for improvements for a portion of 450th Street.

The letter also stated that if no agreements were met, the Commissioner of Transpiration would decide if crossing arms would go up at both crossings anyway -- all costs from that decision would be ordered upon the city and township. The railroad company would not be ordered to pay any costs, other than maintenance for the crossings.

Maintenance for the crossings is estimated at around $3,000 a year, according to Aylesworth.

The city council passed a resolution for a recommendation to keep the crossings open and pay the 10 percent match to have crossings arms and lights at both intersections in question, requesting that BNSF now provide a bid for exact costs for the project. The township voted to keep the crossings open, but with no plan for crossing arms and lights.

The city is responsible for the 450th crossing, while the 425th crossing is in the hands of the township.

Residents argue to keep crossing open

In an Oct. 26 public hearing, the city council and township heard testimony from residents -- all of whom spoke against the closure of the 450th crossing.

Randy and Joan Hutmacher, owners of Rainsoft, located near the 450th crossing, gave passionate arguments against the closure.

The initial reason the two built their water treatment business there was because of its convenient path to downtown, courtesy of the 450th crossing.

"That would be like having a business on Main Street without the front door," Randy said, arguing that, without access to downtown, their business will suffer greatly.

The couple also said the crossing sees more traffic than most would guess.

Traffic counts conducted by the city on Saturday, Oct. 16 revealed that 296 vehicles passed through the crossing within a 24-hour period.

County Commissioner Doug Huebsch said he would hate to see the crossing close, especially during a time when Perham's economy is growing, in terms of jobs.

"We need to figure out how to do it (keep it open)," he said to council members.

City and township hands tied

Township Supervisor James Osterfeld expressed disappointment that MnDOT hadn't offered a fourth offer, one that stated the state would pay for both crossing arms and guards, seeing as though they had classified them as high-risk,

"If the state of Minnesota wants the crossing arms, they can pay for them," he said.

Mayor Tim Meehl pointed to the safety issue, but also took some responsibility for the crossings.

"If our road wasn't there, there wouldn't be a crossing there," he said.

Osterfeld halted the safety argument, arguing that, even with the crossing arms and lights, there's no guarantee that fatalities or injuries will be avoided.