Construction underway at rail loadout site

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Rough grading and foundation digging have begun at the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad rail loadout site along the Highway 18 Bypass in Prairie du Chien. The construction marks the onset of a new seven-track switchyard and $1 million building to enclose much of the current outdoor operations. Shown here, heavy equipment operators work on the south end of the property. (Photo by Correne Martin)

Brush currently sits piled on the north end of the WSOR property.

By Correne Martin

Wisconsin and Southern Railroad has begun changing the landscape of its rail loadout site along the Highway 18 Bypass in Prairie du Chien. According to Tim Karp, director of business development with WSOR, rough grading as well as foundation digging have taken place to prepare the location for a seven-track switchyard and a 6,000-square-foot, 94-foot-high, $1 million building that will enclose much of the current outdoor operations.

“If all things go well, we’re looking at late-May to mid-June for a completion date. Of course, a lot is dependent on the weather,” Karp said. He also noted that the public won’t begin seeing the structure take shape for at least one more month.

“[The new construction] will provide a lot more efficiency for us and it will also free up our main line so we can serve all of our Prairie du Chien area customers better,” he pointed out.

Currently, the WSOR-owned site provides rail loadout services to Pattison Sand Company, of Clayton, Iowa, as well as Universal Forest Products and Gavilon Grain, both of Prairie du Chien.

Karp said once the switchyard portion of the project is finished, it will consist of a series of six-shorter tracks and one connecting track that will extend through the facility and parallel the current main line. The switchyard will be located on the north side of the property.

“This will improve our track capacity and allow cars to move around without going onto the main line and blocking service for other customers,” Karp stated.

A Wisconsin and Southern Railroad engineer and construction team, out of Kansas, is the general contractor for the undertaking. Karp said a number of local contractors are also going to be working on this project.

As the earth is being moved at the loadout location, WSOR is providing updates to the city of Prairie du Chien regarding the project schedules and other pertinent information.

“They’ve been working well with our public works department and the police department,” City Administrator Aaron Kramer said. “They’ve done exactly what they said they’d do as far as keeping us informed.”

The commencement of this project comes despite the Prairie du Chien Common Council’s Dec. 3 denial of WSOR’s request to rezone the property from R-2 medium density residential to I-2 industrial/manufacturing. WSOR has claimed federal pre-emption as a means to move forward with its project. (Under the United States Constitution, the federal government has sole jurisdiction over interstate commerce.)

“It doesn’t really surprise me (that work is underway),” Kramer stated, adding that, due to the issue of pre-emption, the city is not enforcing a daily fine to WSOR for ignoring its zoning.

The Tuesday, Feb. 17 public works committee agenda will include an item concerning WSOR’s request for a potential entryway to its property at Rice Street. The item will not need to go to the council.

“They originally wanted a permanent entrance,” Kramer explained, “but they’ve amended it, asking for at least a temporary entrance during construction and possibly a permanent entrance in the future.” Kramer said it appears the Wisconsin DOT is supportive of the proposed entrance, both temporary and permanent.

Other than the upcoming public works agenda item, the city has been discussing with the DOT traffic safety and traffic flow concerns at that location. Apart from that, the city cannot impede much further on this WSOR project.

“There is nothing on the horizon, as far as the city’s concerned, involving this project and there’s no indication it will come on an agenda in the near future,” Kramer said. “Construction, permitting and wetlands—that’s all up to the DNR and other organizations besides the city.”

He added: “Yes, this is not the ideal location (for such operations). We have been clear about that from the beginning. But, we as a city have not failed our residents who opposed this because WSOR is building. We’ve only failed if the residents don’t understand why this can’t be stopped.”

Katie Garrity is a city resident who lives on Beaumont Road near the loadout site and represents a neighborhood group opposing the riverfront operations of WSOR and its main customer, Pattison Sand Company. In mid-December, the group contemplated a petition to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board for a declaratory order on whether pre-emption is appropriate in this particular case.

“We were going to try to pursue a declaratory order, but it’s very expensive. This is a small group of about 15-30 members who are mostly retired or young families. We don’t have that kind of money,” she said. “They keep using ‘pre-emption’ but we haven’t seen any proof (that it fits this case).”

Though that avenue seems closed right now, the neighborhood group has been working with the Crawford Stewardship Project organization in seeking open records. “We’d like to know who is actually behind building this and if there is a business agreement or what,” she commented.

Garrity said the group also has “legal review” going on at this time, to see if the local citizens have any recourse.

“I don’t know that I have the liberty to elaborate about it right now though,” she stated. “We felt like we had made a little progress when the council denied the rezoning request. It was a small victory for us. But, overall, we’ve been extremely discouraged. This is devastating to the folks who have made the biggest investment of their lives, buying homes in the city of Prairie du Chien.”

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