Lengthy recent delays raise concerns
Lengthy train blockages at multiple Lakeville intersections recently have sparked anger and prompted local officials to seek remedies.
Lakeville Fire Chief Mike Meyer said Progressive Rail trains on Sept. 25 blocked multiple intersections, including Dodd Boulevard, Ipava Avenue and Jaguar Avenue.
“When they do that, that could limit our response to certain areas of the city,” Meyer said.
Fifteen-year Lakeville resident Ed Burek said he saw the intersection blockages result in double rows of vehicles backed up 10 to 15 deep on County Road 50.
”I was thinking to myself: What if an emergency happened?” Burek said. “There were so many people, they wouldn’t be able to pass those tracks.”
Meyer said Progressive Rail crossing guards would create an opening in the event of an emergency for fire, ambulance or police to get through.
Progressive Rail President Dave Fellon blamed that train backup and traffic delay on a large tree lodged under one of the rail cars. He said the intersections were not blocked at the same time and crews worked hard to fix the problem.
“Of course Progressive Rail was prepared for all circumstances as we had team members on site at the ready with chain saws,” Fellon said in an email. “This was an unforeseen event, however, it was immediately remedied.”
City Administrator Steve Mielke said Lakeville police were told that day by Progressive Rail’s customer service representative that the company was having troubles because cars were becoming uncoupled.
Fellon denied that and said earlier reports that vandals had pulled pins out from between the cars were also false.
He said the company posts a conductor at intersections to watch traffic and frequently break the train at the intersections to let vehicles pass.
Residents reported on that day the wait times were long and the situation was particularly trying for people waiting to enter or leave the Jaguar Avenue neighborhood located off County Road 50. With only one access point, some residents said Progressive Rail trains blocked the intersection for up to 25 minutes before breaking to let traffic through.
Among the residents blocked from exiting the neighborhood were a salesman going to meet a client and a mom charged with picking up her preschooler.
According to interim Lakeville police Chief John Kornmann, a mother called police at 1:50 p.m. that day upset by the delay.
“She said she was going to walk under the train to get to the day care to pick up her son,” Kornmann said. “She was advised not to do that.”
He said officers did not know if the mother followed through with her spoken intention.
Police received another call at 2:35 p.m. from a person upset due to a 10-minute wait to get into the neighborhood.
An officer arrived at 2:44 p.m. and the train had moved to let traffic through, Kornmann said.
Also blocked from exiting the same neighborhood was Fire Chief Meyer, who was trying to get to a traffic accident scene.
Meyer said he could have escaped the blocked one-entrance neighborhood through a gated bike path, for which he and other emergency responders have a key, but after learning colleagues were already at the accident scene and injuries were minor, he turned back home.
Before this incident, Meyer said he had never been blocked from getting to a call by Progressive Rail trains in that Jaguar Avenue neighborhood, which is rare in the Dakota County area.
Prior to the construction of an overpass of railroad tracks on Connemara Trail in Rosemount in 2003 and the construction of a second Fire Station in 2007, some neighborhoods in Rosemount and southern Eagan could have been blocked by a passing train.
Mielke said Lakeville today would never allow a development with only one access, and plans are being discussed to add a second outlet for the neighborhood when County Road 50 is expanded, possibly in 2017.
t is unclear how long the trains delayed traffic at intersections on Sept. 25.
Fellon estimated trains blocked the Jaguar intersection for a maximum of two hours, occasionally opening to let vehicles through, but residents reported the intermittent blockages continued from about noon until 4:30 p.m.
Kornmann said the department received a call at 4:57 p.m. from an unknown party reporting rail cars were switching out, causing traffic problems during rush hour.
Kornmann said officers were at Jaguar Avenue and County Road 50 numerous times during the day and said rail workers were making attempts to open the intersection every 10 minutes, as legally required.
Resident Ann Proudfoot said after waiting 25 minutes to get into the Jaguar neighborhood to drop off groceries, she encountered another 10- to 15-minute train delay when she tried to exit for another errand.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Her husband was lined up with vehicles on the other side and waited about 20 minutes to pass.
“It was a mess,” Proudfoot said. “And this is not the first or the second time it has happened. It will happen again unless something gets done.”
Progressive Rail trains have caused additional delays at intersections in Lakeville recently, including on Sept. 3, the first day of school.
Superintendent Lisa Snyder said some afternoon school buses were late because Progressive Rail trains blocked traffic.
“My understanding is that at McGuire (Middle School) … as they were being let out, there was a train there,” Snyder said. “So it kind of held up not only our buses, it held up parents as well.”
She said the backup lasted between 30 and 40 minutes, but it has not happened since.
“I sure wouldn’t want the train thing to happen every day or every week,“ Snyder said. “But certainly in the last few years I’ve been here, it hasn’t happened, so hopefully it was a one-time deal.”
District spokesperson Linda Swanson said its bus service, Schmitty and Sons, has worked to get the latest construction and traffic information to help minimize problems and delays by adjusting routes and schedules. The bus company and school district are working together to notify drivers and families of the situations, she said.
School Board Chair Roz Peterson said Progressive Rail trains are not moved often.
“It seems like a timing issue lately,” she said, adding that the railroad was there first and has the right to conduct business.
She said she is confident solutions can be found that are amicable to everyone.
“There are ways we can work around it and still allow Progressive Rail to run its business,” Peterson said.
Local officials’ options in responding to train concerns are limited because railroads are under federal regulation, although state laws are also in place.
Minnesota law limits trains to blocking at-grade crossings for a maximum of 10 minutes. A first violation of the law is a petty misdemeanor and the penalty is enhanced to a misdemeanor for subsequent violations.
Mayor Matt Little said, according to the city’s lawyer, the law did not apply to the Sept. 25th situation because the train was slightly moving back and forth while in the intersections.
“The ordinance says 10 minutes stoppage, but if the train moves at all the clock starts over,” Little said.
Even if Progressive Rail was issued a ticket by the state or city, it would have little effect because traffic blockage is a federal issue, said Dave Christianson, Freight, Rail and Waterways planner with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
“The railroad can ignore it,” Christianson said, “to their peril in terms of public relations and reports to the (Federal Railroad Administration).”
State Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said federal protections make dealing with the railroad difficult. She said she shares the frustration of local officials and residents.
“I’d like to see Progressive Rail be a little more respectful of the concerns of the neighborhood and have more of a good-neighbor attitude,” she said.
State Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, a gubernatorial candidate, said the situation is concerning.
“I think we, as legislators and elected officials, have to look and find out if there is anything we can do to ensure people’s safety and make people’s travel more efficient,” he said.
Fellon said his company is making efforts to reduce traffic blockages and will be meeting with city officials to review options soon. Among the ideas to be discussed is performing maintenance work during off-peak hours.
He said his business provides economic stability in the city, significantly contributes to the tax base, boosts the local economy and provides jobs. He also noted Progressive Rail has supported local events and community celebrations and conducts a Christmas train event for children.
Fellon said shipping on a train is cheaper and more efficient for local businesses, many of which moved into Lakeville because the railroad was there to service their transportation needs.
The railroad was in place before the Jaguar Avenue neighborhood was established, and Fellon has said homebuyers knew what they were getting when they moved into the area.
Residents say they did not move next to a rail stockyard, but their neighborhood is being used as one. Train storage on Progressive Rail’s lines has been a major concern for residents and city officials; both have cited frustrations, including aesthetics and safety.
“If the train came from Minneapolis, it would come and go,” Burek said. “But this is just used for storage and it makes our neighborhood look crappy.”
Fellon said the storage problem is getting solved as the economy recovers. He said since the economic downturn in 2008 his company is storing 27.7 percent fewer rail cars on its lines that run through downtown Lakeville and in local neighborhoods.
Lakeville residents, especially in the Jaguar Avenue neighborhood, remain concerned about the storage and intersection blockages that leave few options for local influence.
Frustrated residents have spread their message to social media, using Twitter to alert others of news or issues regarding trains and said they feel powerless to affect the situations they say greatly affect their quality of life.
“We are very angry,” Proudfoot said. “Everybody is fed up with it.”