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Perham picked for state-funded rail safety upgrade: City to get $150,000 to coordinate signals at 1st Avenue crossing

Perham has been selected as one of eight communities in Minnesota to receive state funding for railroad crossing improvements. The Minnesota Department of Transportation last week released a study on the rail lines that carry Bakken crude oil fro...

Perham has been selected as one of eight communities in Minnesota to receive state funding for railroad crossing improvements.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation last week released a study on the rail lines that carry Bakken crude oil from North Dakota through Minnesota, including the heavily traveled line that runs through Perham. The study identifies locations where improvements will make the transport of oil safer for residents, workers and emergency responders.

The improvement project in Perham, along with nine other projects in Minnesota that are recommended in the study, will be funded by a $2 million appropriation from the 2014 state legislature.

“The basic premise for effective improvements is safety,” said Commissioner Charlie Zelle in a press release from MnDOT. “We are facing a continuing presence of crude-by-rail shipments across Minnesota. The safer transport of crude oil will reduce the public’s exposure to derailments, spills and fires that have already occurred in other states.”

MnDOT narrowed down its final list of recommendations from 102 high-priority crossings that were initially evaluated. From those, 40 sites were researched further. In the end, nine sites in eight communities were selected to receive state-funded improvements, plus a tenth project that involves safety education along key parts of the oil corridor.

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Improvement projects were ultimately recommended for state funding in Big Lake, Clear Lake, Elk River, St. Cloud, St. Paul Park, Wadena and Winona, in addition to Perham.

Project recommendations run the gamut – from closing dangerous crossings to installing quad gates at a crossing to replacing inadequate signage.

In Perham, MnDOT is recommending that the rail signal at 1st Ave. S, by Tuffy’s Pet Foods, be coordinated with traffic lights to avoid backups at the tracks. The estimated cost of this project is $150,000.

At press time, MnDOT had not yet directly contacting any Perham city staff to discuss the project further, but according to the press release, the agency plans to work with all affected communities to implement the recommended safety upgrades.

Perham City Manager Kelcey Klemm said Monday that he had shared MnDOT’s study with county and other city leaders, but they were waiting for additional information and feedback from MnDOT before taking any action, as there are still a lot of unknowns.

“I don’t think it’s a good thing that we’re so far up on the list (of dangerous railroad crossings in Minnesota), but I guess the good news is that it may provide us some funding to make improvements,” said Klemm.

A MnDOT representative confirmed with the Focus on Tuesday that the project would be funded by the state appropriation, and those funds are expected to be used sometime between now and 2016.

In addition to the improvements at 1st Ave. S, MnDOT also suggested that Perham, along with more than a dozen other communities across the state, construct an overpass or underpass to permanently separate train and road traffic – a high-cost but highly effective means of improving safety.

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The cost of such a major project in Perham is estimated to be $10 million. No state funds have been appropriated for this and it is only a suggestion from MnDOT. According to the study, the suggestion was made to address concerns about grade crossing safety, connectivity to portions of the community, and emergency response access, which are negatively impacted by multiple, frequent train movements and blocked crossings due to stopped or slowly moving trains.

Klemm said the construction of an underpass or overpass has been talked about for years by city leaders, but the cost is inhibitive. The MnDOT representative said lawmakers may examine MnDOT’s recommendations on these larger projects and consider them for future state funding, but there are no funding plans at this time.

In determining its recommendations, MnDOT considered population density and vulnerability, nearby facilities and activity within a half-mile radius of each crossing, as well as other factors.

A writer, editor and mom of four (two kids, two dogs), Marie's been in the newspaper business for over 20 years. She started at the Detroit Lakes Tribune in 2017 after working just down the road at the Perham Focus for several years. Before that, she was at the Herald-Review in Grand Rapids, Minn.
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