Eagle Point residents concerned about a railroad trying to close a town road made their voices heard at a public hearing Thursday.
The overwhelming consensus from Eagle Point residents: Closing 95th Avenue would be a safety risk.
In September 2017, Progressive Rail petitioned the state to close 95th Avenue so workers would have a stretch of land long enough to assemble mile-long trains. The road is just short of a mile long, running from east to west and connecting Highways 178 and 124, with a railroad crossing bisecting it.
But closing 95th Avenue would route much more traffic to 105th Avenue, which is dangerous for pedestrians, the town argued. The alternate road is roughly a mile north and provides access to an entrance to O’Neil Creek Campground and several residential driveways.
At Thursday’s public hearing, hosted by David Albino, administrative law judge of the Office of the Commissioner of Railroads (OCR), Eagle Point and Chippewa County residents said emergency response times would be longer if 95th Avenue was closed.
Fire safety was an issue on the mind of Patricia McElroy, who lives on 93rd Avenue. Fire trucks having to detour around a closed 95th Avenue would increase response time, especially to the southeast part of the town, she said, and she worries about home insurance costs increasing because residents have less fire protection.
“You’re talking about quite a few people who won’t have access, who have lived there for a long time,” McElroy said.
Tina Cummings of 151st Avenue said the railroad should consider bringing back an overpass. In 2015, Progressive Rail expressed interest in exploring an overpass over 95th Avenue and began plans for a traffic impact study, but later abandoned the study.
Residents and town officials have said the plans were abandoned after the frac sand business took a downturn. Progressive Rail’s director of public affairs, Jason Culotta, told the Herald in December 2017 that he didn’t think the railroad’s business would see another dip, and said the sand business has matured and is more stable.
“If you close both of those roads, 95th and 105th, you’re going to force traffic down County (Highway) S. … You’re forcing all that traffic into a highly residential area where a lot of people live,” Cummings said. “If they want to expand … I’d like to see the overpass idea come back through again.”
Leonard Shier of New Auburn was worried about the effect closing 95th Avenue would have on commuter traffic heading to the Mills Fleet Farm distribution center. “We have a nice big warehouse on the other side of the tracks. What are you going to do to that business?” he asked, addressing railroad representatives at the hearing Thursday night.
Shier said he believes the railroad has showed a lack of transparency, since it abandoned plans to explore a proposed overpass over 95th Avenue. “There’s a lack of respect to the citizens and taxpayers to this community,” he said.
John Kopf of 151st Street agreed: “I can’t say enough about what a poor neighbor the railroad is.”
State Rep. Rob Summerfield of Bloomer, who represents the 67th Assembly District, said he was not involved in the process from its beginning, but he urged the OCR to slow down and find a “long-range solution.”
“(With) the distribution center, a lot of (traffic) is going to be heading south … and hitting Highway 29, but we know with this growing area, the residents are going to be using (County Highway) S quite a bit to get there, and hopefully with more development with this business park, we’re going to get more people working there and more businesses,” Summerfield said. “This isn’t going to solve the long term problems.”
Summerfield called for a compromise “so in five years we’re not dealing with a crowded Highway S,” he said.
Doug Darrow, who lives on 95th Avenue, called Progressive Rail’s petition to close the road a “knee-jerk” reaction. “Frac sand may not have been as active as it is now. I realize the railroad is a business, and they deserve the right to make a profit. But close this thing, and what happens five years from now?” he said.
Randall Woodruff, a town supervisor and member of the Eagle Point fire department for 19 years, said he also believed diverting emergency vehicles to 105th isn’t viable due to a 45 mile-per-hour speed limit and no-passing zones.
The OCR, a state agency, will have a decision by the end of April or the first week of May, Albino said. That decision will be posted on the OCR’s website, and on the town of Eagle Point’s website, town officials said.