WORTHINGTON — A handful of county commissioners will travel to Washington, D.C. next month to make the case for Ellis & Eastern Railroad’s grant application to upgrade track on the shortline railroad that traverses Rock and Nobles counties.

Owned by the Buffalo Ridge Regional Rail Authority (a joint powers of Rock and Nobles counties), the railroad has been leased to Ellis & Eastern since 2017. The company uses the rail line to haul ethanol and isobutanol from Gevo in Luverne to the Union Pacific railway in Worthington. While numerous other products are also hauled on the line, the highly flammable liquids — considered hazardous material — must be shipped in double-walled rail cars starting in May 2023. Those cars will be too heavy to traverse the 110-year-old rail line.

“Our rail line isn’t built to handle 286,000-pound cars,” said Rock County Administrator Kyle Oldre, adding that the new federal safety regulations have made the BRRA line “somewhat obsolete.”

The rail line, specifically the bridges, can only handle cars with a maximum weight of 263,000 pounds.

“We’ve been hauling this product out for the last 20 years (the ethanol plant opened in 1999 and has always used the rail to move product),” Oldre said. “We’re doing a fine job, but now (the federal government has) changed the rules on us.”

Upgrading the railroad to handle the added weight will require an investment of nearly $34 million, according to Dan Kippley, who works in economic and business development for Ellis & Eastern.

“We’re asking the federal government for approximately $14.5 million,” said Kippley, noting Ellis & Eastern is committing $19.4 million to the upgrades. The company is pursuing other grant opportunities, as well as investment from local entities who can benefit from the rail’s improvements and increased ability to transport product.

The rail upgrade will span the BRRA line between Org and Manley, with $15 million also dedicated to the Ellis & Eastern-owned line that stretches from Manley to Sioux Falls, S.D.

With Railroad Day on Capitol Hill coinciding with the last day of the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference, Oldre and a contingent including Rock County commissioners Sherri Thompson and Stan Williamson, Nobles County Commissioner Gene Metz and two commissioners from Minnehaha County will take part in both events. They will be joined March 4 on Capitol Hill by Kippley to lobby for grant funding.

Oldre said the group plans to meet with state legislators from both Minnesota and South Dakota, as well as U.S. Department of Transportation officials. The U.S. DOT and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao are responsible for awarding CRISI grants.

Rep. Jim Hagedorn recently visited the rail line while in Luverne to see first-hand the need for improvements. Oldre said he has also been in contact with Minnesota senators Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, and they are in the process of seeking letters of support from the duo in their quest for a federal grant.

“The value in this group going out there, even if we’re not successful in this particular grant, we’ve planted the seed for the rest of the grants throughout the calendar year,” Oldre said. “The (Minnesota legislators) recognize how old the line is. They recognize that because of the type of product that is on the line, we’re now in a bind. Because of the hazardous material with the ethanol, we have to run a heavier car.”

Planned improvements

Ellis & Eastern’s proposal is to upgrade the line from the existing 80-pound (considered light rail) to 115-pound rail. The weight is based on a three-foot length of rail.

The most pressing need, noted Kippley, is improvements to the bridges along the rail line.

There are 17 bridges on the line between Org and Manley, and Ellis & Eastern proposes to remove one and replace it with a culvert system. The total bridge work is estimated at more than $3.6 million.

Upgrading the rail, to include heavier steel, tie replacement, new plates, anchors and ballasts, is estimated to cost $19.3 million, which includes everything from engineering and environmental work to labor.

The nearly $7.4 million remaining in the proposal is tied to economic development, and includes switches, rail siding repairs and a spur line at Luverne.

Since taking over the lease of the short line rail, Ellis & Eastern has concentrated its efforts on boosting use of the railroad. The completion of the Rail to Road transloading facility last September near Org has already drummed up new business for the line, with much more potential.

Rail is still considered one of the most efficient ways to move bulk product, said Oldre, noting that each rail car can carry the equivalent of three to four semi loads.

“With a 100-car train, you’re taking 300 to 400 semi loads off the road and you’re doing it with just a couple of guys,” Oldre said. “Being how deep tied to ag Nobles and Rock are, it’s imperative that we try to preserve what’s moving our ag product.”

Ellis & Eastern hopes to hear about the CRISI grant by the end of March.

Meanwhile, Kippley said Ellis & Eastern will continue to make repairs and do maintenance on the line, with a 20-year maintenance plan outlining a 5% replacement of ties every year. Weather conditions in 2019 were not ideal, Kippley said, adding that millions of dollars were spent by Ellis & Eastern last year to keep the line safe.

“We operate a very safe rail line,” he said. “We don’t go over 10 miles per hour. With the rail improvements, we’ll be able to increase speeds in the country to a maximum of 25 miles per hour.”