Residents, local officials frustrated with train blight
Despite years of complaints and pleas by citizens and local officials, some Lakeville residents’ closest neighbors are unused railroad cars.
Various rail cars, often rusting, graffiti-covered, have been parked behind homes by Progressive Rail Inc. for about four years, blocking views and inviting controversy.
Residents have raised concerns over public safety and declining property values while complaining that the cars, parked behind their homes, have interfered with their ability to enjoy their property or sell it if they want to move.
Parked rail cars in neighborhoods also concern city and state leaders, but there are no regulatory options to change or control the situation that Lakeville policy documents call “visual blight.”
“There is not a thing the city can do,” said Diane Volz, a Lakeville resident since 1994. “Their hands are tied. The railroad has more rights than God.”
Railroads are regulated by the federal government under the Interstate Commerce Law because their operations cross state boundaries, said Dave Christianson, Minnesota Department of Transportation senior planner for rail and freight operations.
He said the state also has limited powers regarding railroads. There are no regulations for stored freight cars.
Christianson said the state can send an inspector if there is an unsafe condition, like cars blocking a crossing. If there are safety violations, the company is asked to correct the problem.
Christianson said Lakeville residents’ complaints regarding car storage are referred to Progressive Rail.
Some residents say they are not satisfied with Progressive Rail’s response, and call the parked trains “ugly” and an attractive nuisance to youth.
“We see kids climbing on trains a lot,” said Angela Vandenbusch, Lakeville. “They are running on top of them, lifting up the doors on top, climbing all over them.”
It is illegal for anyone not employed by the railroad to enter a train track or climb on rail cars, yet youths are drawn to the parked rail cars. Residents say they are concerned someone could be hurt or killed on them.
Lakeville resident Theresa Johnson said she has seen teens running and jumping on top of the trains from car-to-car.
“There is some partying or activities at night,” she said. “There are things being thrown at trains and banging on the cars themselves.”
Progressive Rail President Dave Fellon said anyone on railroad property is trespassing and police should be notified, adding that parents should keep better watch over their children.
Lakeville police received three train trespassing complaints from June 1, 2012, to June 1, 2013, according to Valerie Kehrer, records supervisor.
Last October, a caller reported a photographer using the trains for senior pictures, and last August juveniles were reportedly seen running, jumping and sitting on the cars throwing rocks onto a nearby street.
In all the instances, Lakeville police were unable to locate anyone in the area, Kehrer said.
Fellon said he understands the neighbors’ concerns and always responds to their inquiries.
“I appreciate their concerns,” Fellon said. “I have a home, I’ve listened, I’m concerned about it. I’m working with everyone. You can’t say we don’t respond.”
Residents complain obscene graffiti on the trains have exposed their children to inappropriate language and drawings. Some photos of the graffiti were so graphic this newspaper would not publish them.
“All they would have to do is put the cars a block further south,” Vandenbusch said. “At least people could barbecue in their backyard without looking at an ugly train.”
Fellon said that track in Lakeville neighborhoods is all he has available.
“If we have room to move things around, we will do that,” Fellon said. “But we’ve exhausted every one of those options. The only space I have left open is Lakeville.”
He added that every time they receive a request to remove graffiti from the trains they have done it.
“But if it’s local teens doing the painting, that’s another story,” Fellon said. “They have to respect railroad property, too.”
Christianson said Minnesota is one of the few states that does not give railroads the power to police their own property for trespassing and property safety issues.
“We’ve proposed it in the past, but it has not gone over well,” Christianson said. “Legislators are cautious about extending police powers to any agency not reporting directly to the government.”
Local officials would like some more control over the parked trains.
A 2009 Lakeville City Council legislative policy, still a top initiative, asks federal legislators to create laws or rules prohibiting storing railroad cars in residential neighborhoods without the written consent of the city.
“The only thing we can do is talk to them and ask them to change,” City Administrator Steve Mielke said.
Fellon said there are fewer cars on the tracks than in the past, and he hopes the remaining ones will be gone soon as the economy improves because they are needed for transportation.
Until 2009, Lakeville residents had not seen rail cars parked in their neighborhoods.
“For our first 18 years we lived in this house, the trains were basically not used or on occasion a train came through with a couple of cars,” Johnson said. “We knew when we bought the house the tracks were behind our house. We didn’t expect there would be a rail storage space behind our house. These kinds of cars should be stored in an industrial area.”
Progressive Rail stores the cars for customers on track it leases from Canadian Pacific, and some residents say they resent that the company is making money from blighting their property.
“He gets paid for each car parking and we’re supposed to police it and lose money in our property values,” Volz said.
Dakota County Assessor Bill Peterson said the county has reduced those Lakeville property’s land values by 5 percent because of the parked railroad cars.
“Some of those tracks didn’t necessarily have as much activity before, but our appraisers felt that because of parking cars on there, it did warrant some type of a reduction,” Peterson said.
He said if the cars had not been there, the land values probably would not have been reduced.
“It certainly has had an influence on our adjustments,” Peterson said.
Fellon said he has no other choices but to park the cars in the neighborhood, and while the economy is improving in some areas, it is still a far different environment from 2008 when consumer demand kept rail cars operating.
“We’re not in the business to store cars, but when our customers are not having the business they need, we have to,” Fellon said.
He noted the oil tankers that used to be stored in the neighborhoods have moved into operation following the oil boom in North Dakota.
“Some industries are recovering, thanks to a good energy program out there,” Fellon said.
According to the Association of American Railroads, the train industry appears to be slowly recovering.
The association reported U.S. rail traffic was up 1 percent through May compared to the same time last year, but still down from its peak in 2006.
It also reported the number of freight cars in storage also declined between last year and May 1, the fourth consecutive monthly decline, putting the number of cars in storage at its lowest level since April 1, 2012.
Fellon said Progressive Rail is receiving fewer inquiries about storing cars than in the past.
“Two to three years ago, nobody saw any light in the tunnel,” he said.
That light could lead to a different kind of train issue for the neighborhood.
Canadian Pacific turned down the county’s proposal to build a greenway on its rail property through Lakeville.
The idea has been abandoned because the company sees the freight corridor as “a long-term strategic asset” that they want to keep, Dakota County Senior Planner John Mertens said.
“They see it as a freight rail connection to Minneapolis someday,” Mertens said.
Mielke expressed frustration that while the city has authority over other industrial properties to require them to remove graffiti from buildings, it has none with rail cars.
Local, state and federal officials shared Mielke’s expressed frustration about the lack of control.
U.S. Rep. John Kline and Sen. Amy Klobuchar have written the U.S. Surface Transportation Board seeking resolution, and U.S. Sen. Al Franken has also raised concerns.
A Surface Transportation Board spokesman who asked that his name not be published said there are no regulations for stored freight cars, and since railroads are privately owned, they are free to store cars as needed on their own property.
He said the board is an economic regulator of freight railroads, and, although the issue did not fall under its jurisdiction, discussed parked rail cars with Kline and Klobuchar’s staff to “foster communication and seek resolution.”
When asked to elaborate, the spokesman said the discussions were distinct from the process of a formal complaint and added the Rail Customer and Public Assistance Program is also working on the matter.
Kline is exploring legislative options to resolve the issue and “hopes to find a viable solution soon,” according to his spokesman Troy Young.
Klobuchar also said she is seeking solutions to the issue, stating the Lakeville rail cars “need to be moved.”
State Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said local governments should have more control over railcar storage “because it’s people within the community that are bothered and inconvenienced by it.”
Lakeville Mayor Matt Little agreed, noting the city has limited function in regulating any federal railway, but has developed a relationship with Progressive Rail, so the city is getting information on the types of cars that will be stored in neighborhoods.
“I would love to see something done in which local municipalities could have some kind of role in regulating rail car storage,” Little said. “We’re doing as much as we can at the city level.”
City Council Member Doug Anderson disagreed, stating the city needs to work harder to look for a solution.
Asked if he thought the city has done enough, he said: “Clearly not, because the concern still exists.”
Other areas of the country have been more successful in getting rail car storage out of neighborhoods, including in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. and New Castle, Ind.
Eva Henry, a county commissioner in Adams County, Colo., said about four years ago, Union Pacific began storing cars behind an upper-end neighborhood. in Thornton, Colo.
“They brought them in, parked them and left,” Henry said.
Like Lakeville, residents there complained the cars were unattractive, graffiti-covered and a potential hazard for children.
At first, local officials’ calls to Union Pacific were fruitless, because “they passed phone calls like you don’t matter,” Henry said.
But local, state and national elected representatives were persistent.
The company’s response changed dramatically when U.S. Rep. Jared Polis walked into Union Pacific’s Washington, D.C., office and talked to them.
“He had just gotten elected, and was in office a couple of months when he walked down there,” Henry said. “Within a week or two, they moved them.”
She said she does not know what Polis said, and he did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Henry said they worked to help Union Pacific find a different place to store the cars that was “not in the middle of a neighborhood.” She said all the cars are out of storage and back to work now.
Her advice to Lakeville?
“Start working on the political part of it,” Henry said. “Try to get congressmen to work a little harder on it. I think it’s going to take something bigger than state and municipal government to get the rail cars moved.”