WORTHINGTON — A trio of Rock and Nobles County commissioners were in Washington, D.C. this week, intending to lobby on behalf of Ellis & Eastern Railroad’s request for a nearly $14.5 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Instead, they found themselves celebrating the news that the railroad has been awarded the full grant amount it requested to improve the shortline railroad in eastern South Dakota and southwest Minnesota.

“It’s awesome. We’re very excited about it,” said Ellis & Eastern President Clark Meyer.

The grant dollars will be combined with a $19.4 million commitment from Ellis & Eastern to make improvements to the shortline railroad that stretches from Sioux Falls, South Dakota to near the unincorporated community of Org, southwest of Worthington.

Those improvements include critical infrastructure upgrades to bridges along the line, and increasing the capacity of the line itself from the current 80-pound to 115-pound rail. The upgrade is necessary to be able to handle double-lined cars that will be required to transport ethanol beginning in 2023.

“This CRISI grant will improve the safety and quality of the Ellis & Eastern railroad and will be a boon to southern Minnesota’s economy,” said District 1 Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-Blue Earth) in announcing the grant on Wednesday. “These rail infrastructure improvements will allow for faster, safer and more cost-effective transportation of products like ethanol, and make our rural communities in Rock and Nobles counties more prosperous.”

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Nobles County Commissioner Gene Metz joined Rock County Commissioners Sherri Thompson and Stan Williamson, as well as Rock County Administrator Kyle Oldre, two commissioners from Minnehaha County, South Dakota, and representatives from Ellis & Eastern for the grant announcement, which took place during a state breakfast as part of Railroad Day on Capitol Hill. The commissioners had been in the nation’s capital for several days in advance to attend the National Association of Counties legislative conference.

Instead of spending the day lobbying for the grant funding, Metz said the contingent met with all of the senators and representatives from Minnesota and South Dakota to talk about how the much-needed grant will be used, and how the line will be able to further economic development.

“We were shocked that we got the whole thing,” Metz said of the announcement of the grant. They were shocked also that the grant was awarded on their first application. Typically, railroads have had to apply multiple years in order to receive a grant.

“I don’t think a whole lot has been spent in this area of the state,” Metz said. “We had two states and a double set of legislators working on this.”

Metz believes the uniqueness of the shortline railroad — which connects to two major rail lines — gave it a boost in grant consideration.

Meyer said that while the grant has been awarded to Ellis & Eastern, “they don’t just send a check.”

“We have to start the engineering phase and the design phase; the environmental studies have to be done,” he shared. “It’s probably going to take a year and a half to get it all going.”

Meyer said preliminary work was done just to get cost estimates for the grant application. Now, all of the final planning must begin.

Repairs and improvements to the railroad will be done in multiple phases and could take up to seven years for completion, Meyer said. The grant will be spread out over the whole project, with some funding improvements on the South Dakota side and the remainder in Minnesota.

Since it began leasing the shortline railroad from the Buffalo Ridge Regional Rail Authority (operated by a joint powers between Rock and Nobles counties) in 2017, Ellis & Eastern has cleaned up the property along the track and developed relationships with businesses and industry who can benefit from use of the rail line.

Their latest project was the completion of the Rail to Road transloading facility along the shortline railroad near Org.

Meyer said the facility has created an increase in the use of the rail line, but there is much more room to grow the business.

“There’s several locations along that line that have potential and by working on a secure, reliable, safe and efficient rail, our chance of landing a good deal are a lot better,” Meyer said, pointing to opportunities that exist in hauling both grain and industrial material.

Metz agreed, saying, “Warehousing is what’s going to be huge in the future.” He envisions the rail delivering aggregate — rock and sand that are plentiful along the western end of the Ellis & Eastern line — to the eastern side of Nobles County that doesn’t have those kinds of pits.

Meyer said while their railroad improvement plan is ambitious, Ellis & Eastern is “determined to do it right.”

The federal grant gives them the opportunity to now start the work.

“It’s going to be great for our customers and for our communities,” Meyer said.