Thursday, August 16, 2018

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Railroad's road closure request for Chippewa County denied

State railroad commissioner agrees with public, local officials who opposed closing 95th Ave. in town of Eagle Point

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CHIPPEWA FALLS — Progressive Rail has lost its request to have a road closed in the Chippewa County town of Eagle Point, just northeast of  Chippewa Falls.

Progressive Rail filed a request with the state’s Office of the Commissioner of Railroads last September seeking a permanent closure of a 1-mile stretch of 95th Avenue, from Highway 124 to Highway 178, just west of Lake Wissota, allowing Progressive to expand its operations with a larger switching yard. Progressive Rail wants to put together 80- to 100-unit trains in that corridor. The railroad company contended that if 95th Avenue were closed, it would reduce the number of road closures on Highway S.

In an 11-page ruling this week, the OCR denied the request.

“The commissioner appreciates (Progressive Rail’s) penchant for safety but closing the 95th Avenue crossing, especially when the nearest crossings north and south are a track mile away, does not promote public safety,” the OCR ruling states. “Instead, altering the crossing to two tracks with appropriate warning devices serves the twin goals of a two-mile track for PGR’s switching movements and minimizing blockage of Highway S for the traveling public.”

Eagle Point town Chairman Dennis Ferstenou was pleased with the ruling.

“We had fought this for nine months now, in the interest of public safety, particularly emergency services, and how that would be handled if 95th Avenue were closed,” Ferstenou said Tuesday.

Ferstenou was optimistic the OCR would rule in the town’s favor after a daylong public hearing in April.

“The testimony at the hearing, other than from Progressive Rail, was 100 percent in our favor,” Ferstenou said. “The testimony focused on the safety issue.”

Progressive Rail spokesman Jason Culotta said the company is evaluating its next step.

“We’re obviously disappointed with the outcome but now must determine what the next most safe options are to pursue,” Culotta said. “Reducing the rail blockages at the Highway S crossing in a safe manner is a priority, and we’ll continue to work to meet that goal.”

Ferstenou noted that the railroad could appeal the decision, or it may move forward on the OCR’s recommendation to add a second track across Highway S.

If the OCR had agreed to close 95th Avenue, it would have led to more local traffic not only on Highway S to the south but on 105th Avenue to the north, and Ferstenou said that road — while recently redone — is simply not prepared to handle a significant increase in traffic.

Chippewa Falls Mayor Greg Hoffman said he wasn’t sure of the effect the closure would have had on the city, but he noted the northeast corner of Chippewa Falls is expanding, particularly with the growth of Lake Wissota Business Park, such as the opening of the Mills Fleet Farm distribution center.

“I’m happy for the town of Eagle Point,” Hoffman said. “I had some concerns for emergency services.”

At the April hearing, Eagle Point fire Chief Rocky Berg said closing the road would have endangered safety.

Berg said there are occasions when emergency medical services workers are radioing each other, alerting others that roads are closed. Berg recalled one time when he sat at a blocked train crossing for 25 minutes, with his lights and siren on, but the train didn’t clear the road.

Lakeville, Minn.-based Progressive Rail began operations in 1996 in the Twin Cities. It took over operating the line from Chippewa Falls into Barron County in 2004, after Canadian National Railroad abandoned its line between Ladysmith and Rice Lake — leaving Barron County with only one rail access point. The company has invested in upgrading the tracks to allow for higher speeds throughout the rail corridor.

Progressive Rail considered building an overpass of 95th Avenue in 2015 to allow for the construction of a rail switching yard with 10 tracks. It later dropped those plans as the sand mining industry waned.

Contact: chris.vetter@ecpc.com


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