Growing WSOR rail yard not entirely pleasing to local citizens

By Correne Martin

The west end of Prairie du Chien along the Highway 18 Bypass will soon depict a different landscape. By the end of the year, Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Company plans to expand its transloading site, currently used by Pattison Sand Company for loading and unloading sand.

On Tuesday night, July 1, representatives from the rail company presented plans to the Prairie du Chien Common Council to build a seven-track rail engine and car storage yard to the north of the already intended $1.3 million, 5,090-square-foot building on the south portion of the site. WSOR was not exactly met with pleasantries from the council or the community, which was represented by about 40 in attendance. Yet it was made clear during the meeting that the transformation will take place on state-owned property, which is exempt from any city riverfront zoning laws, meaning local government has little to say about the expansion.

“I believe the city has done everything in its power to take a stance on this,” City Administrator Aaron Kramer said. He reminded those at the meeting that, in February of 2013, the city sought an informal opinion from the Surface Transportation Board on whether the transloading site was pre-empt from city zoning laws, but the federal STB would not provide such. Then, the council decided not to pursue further counsel due to the high cost of seeking it. He also noted that the city appropriately involved the Wisconsin DNR and other regulatory agencies in the permitting process last September, when WSOR first announced its plans to erect a $1.3 million building at the site.

From WSOR’s perspective, the company is growing, trying to create operational efficiencies and also doing what it can to address community concerns about the site and correlating work done there.

“We have a customer payroll, based on rail dependent businesses, that is putting $12 million into the economy. Thus, we have an increasing need for rail capacity,” WSOR Director of Government Relations Ken Lucht said. “As it is right now, the capacity is becoming a real difficulty for us. We are constantly evaluating our markets and our routes so that we can be the most competitive transportation resource as possible.”
That’s where this expansion comes in.

Lucht continued, “We’ve spent a couple years on a long-term analysis, looking at half-a-dozen alternative sites outside of the city—in the Wauzeka and Boscobel areas, as well as east of the diamond interchange with [Burlington Northern Santa Fe]. When we looked at geography, our market and the possibility of having to buy new land, we were ultimately led back to our current transloading site (along bypass in Prairie du Chien). We feel this location allows us the best accountability to our customers.”

Lucht touted that, during construction of this project, which will take place within the existing railroad right-of-way, WSOR estimates the creation of 20 jobs. Then, another 15 full-time positions are anticipated once the expanded rail yard is complete, within six to nine months.

“We’re talking $1.3 million in new capital in the building and equipment alone. That’s not including the rail,” Lucht stated. “We estimate about 90 percent of that will be spent in the Prairie du Chien area.”
The cost of construction will be paid for by private-sector funding through WSOR and the management of the facility will continue to be handled by WSOR. Though Pattison Sand is the sole user of the rail yard at this time, Lucht said, the site has been used for loading of composite lumber in the past and it could be used for transporting other products in the future.

“This project is going to help address community concerns. We’ve been listening and we’re trying to be a good neighbor,” Lucht said, regarding WSOR’s awareness of neighbors’ complaints in regard to dust, noise, lighting, visual impact, etc. “One of the community’s biggest concerns has been the repeat staging of rail cars and equipment on St. Feriole Island. You will see a decrease in that with this project also.”

WSOR Director of Business Development Tim Karp said the site’s current loading capacity is about 100 rail cars and that, after the project, it will be 136 cars. He also pointed out that, although loading a 100-car train now takes six to seven days, that process will be reduced by about one-quarter.

“The current set-up has caused us to leave rail cars sit to wait for loading,” Karp stated. “We may still have a few on the island after this, but we believe the upgrades will help.”

“Access to St. Feriole Island and the harbor is very important to our operations. The constant switching back and forth is going to be totally reduced,” Lucht added, noting that staging and loading of rail cars will happen more via the loadout building than on the island.

With the new building, the vast majority of loading and unloading of sand will be contained within the structure. Included in the 5,090 square feet would be a 20-foot by 130-foot railcar loadout and a 40-foot by 100-foot truck loadout shed in addition to two silos, which would hold about 250 tons of sand each—or enough for five rail cars or 20 semis. A floodplain plan has been developed to assure the facility would not be damaged by flood waters. Landscaping will be done to offer a visual barrier and to help mitigate noise from the operations. City input will be considered for the landscaping and color of the building.

Frank Pintz, a rural Prairie du Chien resident, former council member and Pattison employee, provided his personal insight at Tuesday night’s council meeting. He said he started working for Pattison in October and that, because he once sat on the council, he has paid special attention to the company’s procedures. He explained that he has been impressed by the amount of paperwork that is completed in carrying out the sand loading operations as safely as possible.

Citizens speaking in opposition to the transloading operations and the plans for expansion included Teresa Champion, of Prairie du Chien, and Crawford Stewardship staff Forest Jahnke, of Gays Mills, and Edie Ehlert, of Ferryville. Champion, Jahnke and Ehlert reiterated their concerns about the health and quality of life of those residents in the immediate vicinity of the transloading site.

Backing up their position, three council members added critical comments.

“This expansion is in a residential area. It is not benefitting the people who live there, it’s benefitting you,” Alderwoman Karen Solomon said to the WSOR representatives. “We have already lost our river view. In its place are a rail yard, a semi parking lot and an industrial building. These residents are the ones who are losing everything they’ve worked their entire lives for.”

Following Solomon’s statements, the crowd in the council chambers erupted in applause.

After Mayor Dave Hemmer quieted the audience, Alderman Ken Fleshner directed his comments toward WSOR, adding, “You’re preaching to us that you care, but I don’t really buy it. Last weekend, there was a wedding on the island and The Depot and Dousman House were both packed, but yet there were rail cars blocking two of the roads all weekend. I feel like you’re punching me in the mouth every time you say you care.”

In response, Lucht apologized and said a line of better communication between the railroad and local emergency personnel has since been established to prevent similar situations from happening.
“We’ll have to wait and see what happens, Ken. The proof will be in the pudding,” Mayor Hemmer said.

Finally, Alderman Ron Leys provided his opinion on the matter. “That’s really the only river front we have left to develop and its also an area of entrance into our community. But let’s be up front about this. You’re not asking us, you’re telling us.”

No council members spoke in support of WSOR’s plans.

According to City Administrator Kramer, George Stringham at the Army Corps of Engineers’ Minneapolis office assured him that, contrary to a misinterpretation presented by opponents as fact at Tuesday’s meeting, the city is not at risk of being removed from the Flood Insurance Program when WSOR’s plans come to fruition.

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