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Marquart advances rail debate

The initial reaction to Rep. Paul Marquart's, DFL-Dilworth, oil train safety proposal is Republican anti-tax boilerplate. While giving lip service to the need to improve rail safety as it applies to oil trains rumbling through Minnesota communiti...

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The initial reaction to Rep. Paul Marquart’s, DFL-Dilworth, oil train safety proposal is Republican anti-tax boilerplate. While giving lip service to the need to improve rail safety as it applies to oil trains rumbling through Minnesota communities, Republican leaders in the House apparently are not willing to pay for a core function of government: public safety.

Assistant House Minority Leader Marquart comes from a city steeped in railroad history. A railroad town from its beginnings, Dilworth celebrates its heritage with annual Loco Daze. Marquart is a former mayor of Dilworth. He is not anti-railroad. Rather, he is emerging as a champion of improving oil train rail safety.

Marquart’s bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, and several other Democrats. It seeks $100 million in revenue from new taxes on railroads. The money would be used to improve rail crossings, and given to cities to use for safety programs, such as first responder training, emergency services, and specialized rail safety equipment.

Republican House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly of Red Wing said his majority caucus is developing its own transportation plan, but that a railroad safety provision probably won’t be ready for at least a year. Not good enough, said Hornstein. He said his Minneapolis district can’t wait to address oil train safety concerns.

And always the good neighbor, the BNSF Railway, the major carrier of volatile Bakken oil through Minnesota, said the railroad would “absolutely” take the state to court if Marquart’s legislation passes. The railroad says the state tax would violate federal law.

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Additionally, the broader transportation funding debate likely will center on DFL proposals to increase the gasoline tax, a proposition that will go nowhere in the Republican House. Republicans want to shift a portion of the state’s surplus to transportation, a prospect Gov. Mark Dayton and state Senate Democrats say is the wrong way to ensure sustainable financing. It’s unsure how much attention rail safety will get when the transportation funding melee heats up.

Marquart is right to call attention to escalating risks oil trains visit on Minnesota communities along the tracks. New statistics confirm the risk is real. Oil train wrecks, fires and explosions are up 28 percent since the North Dakota oil boom took off. Oil train derailments are making headlines more frequently. The more attention on oil train safety - whether state, federal or local - the faster railroads and industries associated with oil transport will act to improve safety records.

Marquart’s legislation likely won’t make much headway in the Republican-controlled House. But the debate will be useful to better define the state’s role in protecting its residents from danger on the rails. Moreover, he’s forcing his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reveal where their commitments lie: to an anti-tax ideology, to fealty to the railroads, or to real-world public safety. That’s a debate worth watching. - The Forum of Fargo Moorhead

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