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Nobles County approves $750,000 advancement for railroad repairs

WORTHINGTON — On a 4-1 vote Tuesday afternoon, Nobles County commissioners authorized funding not to exceed $750,000 toward a $1.5 million damage estimate on the Buffalo Ridge Regional Rail Authority (BRRRA) short-line railroad in Nobles and Rock counties. 

It is anticipated the money will be fully repaid if a presidential disaster is declared due to flood-related damages in Minnesota.

Tuesday’s vote, taken during the second special county board meeting since last Friday, paves the way for the BRRRA to sign contracts with Sleepy Eye-based Trackworks to complete the repairs to the damaged rail line. Much of the damage to the line is in Rock County, such as undermined track due to washouts.

The BRRRA is a joint authority between Nobles and Rock counties, and as Commissioner Bob Demuth Jr. pointed out Tuesday, the joint powers agreement states each county has a 50 percent stake in the rail line.

“The responsibility should be borne equally between the jurisdiction,” Demuth read. “To me, the water heater is shot. You’ve got to have hot water. We’re a duplex here — you can’t expect one person to pay, you’ve got to share it.”

Still, Demuth acknowledged that putting taxpayer money into an outdated rail line has kept him awake at night.

Commissioner Matt Widboom, casting the lone vote in opposition to the funding, shared that sentiment.

“I just struggle with the responsible use of public dollars and the longer range use of antiquated rail and the short-line concept,” Widboom said. “I understand it’s not direct Nobles County dollars, hopefully, but it’s our dollars. I struggle with putting the dollars into a system that I question the long-term viability of.”

“I think we’ve all weighed in on the issue and where we see the future of it,” added board chairman Marv Zylstra.

Minnesota Southern Railway, the operator for the short-line, signed an extended contract last year to continue to use the line for the next 20 or 25 years, Zylstra said. The rail has fallen far short of its initial estimate to ship 3,000 cars a year. Noted Minnesota Southern Railway owner Brent Polanchek last Friday, it hasn’t topped 1,000 cars per year in the last 15 years.

Commissioner Don Linssen said Tuesday he’d like to see plans for the future viability of the line.

Rock County Administrator Kyle Oldre, who joined the group via phone conference, said FEMA officials took photos of the rail line Tuesday and were “comfortable” with the $1.5 million damage estimate.

Because FEMA requires proof that the BRRRA is a governmental entity, Oldre is taking care of the paperwork. The BRRRA’s insurance policy is through the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust, which requires policyholders to be governmental bodies. The MCIT policy doesn’t cover flood damage, so Oldre will request a rejection letter from MCIT to provide to FEMA.

Oldre answered Nobles County commissioners’ questions about the rail line and spoke of the seven businesses that utilize the rail.

GEVO, a Luverne-based ethanol plant, is the largest shipper on the line, at 12-14 cars per week.

“It looks like there’s not a whole lot of benefit to Nobles County, but when the ethanol plant came in, the corn basis went up,” said Commissioner Gene Metz. “That’s a benefit for the whole area — maybe not a benefit to hang your hat on.”

Metz said the short-line railroad provides an option to people on the west side of the county to ship product out.

“The cars Brent does move keeps that many more trucks off the road,” added Zylstra.

As for the point made about the viability of the line, Zylstra said that’s an issue the BRRRA needs to address. He and Metz are the two Nobles County representatives serving on the authority.

With Nobles County’s approval of its half of the $1.5 million cost estimate to repair the line, the BRRRA is scheduled to meet this morning to begin signing contracts to complete the repairs on the west portion of the track, between Luverne and Manley.

Oldre said Southern Minnesota Railway is hopeful the work can be completed within three to four weeks so cars currently stranded in Luverne and Worthington can be moved along the rail line.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

(507) 376-7330