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Opinion: Proposed railroad merger threatens vitality of Mississippi River communities

The Mississippi River is among our country’s greatest treasures. It boasts plentiful recreation and commercial opportunities as well as a rich history that tells the broader story of America. Communities bordering the Mississippi range from teeming metropolises to quaint villages, all of which claim the river as an essential part of their culture and economy. As such, the residents of these towns deserve a voice in deals that will affect their relationship with the Mississippi River.

Last year, Canadian Pacific (CP) and Kansas City Southern (KCS) announced one such deal — a merger that would create the first single-line railroad spanning from Mexico to Canada. In doing so, the two companies propose to transport more crude oil along the Mississippi River than ever before, hampering public safety, discouraging economic development, and fundamentally changing communities along this most vital corridor.

Mississippi River-adjacent towns have already experienced the drawbacks of frequent railroad traffic. In Winona, Minnesota, for example, residents have sat idle for up to 40 minutes at various crossings. As a result, workers have been late to their jobs, consumers looking to shop local have turned their cars around, and emergency vehicles haven’t been able to do their jobs. 

Although the Surface Transportation Board (STB) has set out to investigate and rectify the well-documented issue of long wait times, their consideration of the merger seems to offset any of their potential solutions. Some areas along the railroad will see 14.4 more trains every single day. Even worse, the STB expects that these trains will become longer than ever. In 2021, the average length of a CP train was over 1.5 miles, a figure that could almost double after the merger. These increases in train frequency and volume will add to already frustrating obstacles for local traffic, something our federal leaders have noted but failed to solve.

Just last year, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a section of which mandated a federal study of ever-longer trains and their impacts on public safety. In considering this merger, the STB should undergo a similar investigation. Otherwise, our communities and first responders won’t know what to expect until it’s too late.  

While important, public safety isn’t the only thing that may suffer under the merger.

Recent studies reveal the sensitivity of residential property values along railroads. In fact, a property’s consistent exposure to 65 decibels or greater of rail-related noise pollution slashes its value by up to 18 percent. On average, trains emit 85 decibels of sound. The proposed merger will force thousands of families into a difficult economic decision, the impetus of which is totally out of their control. Given the increase in rail traffic, residents will likely land on relocating completely, providing fewer incentives for waterfront economic development projects, further eroding the general willingness to live in those areas.

Such projects and community-minded events are a focal point of our member cities and towns. Pavilions, festivals, main streets, and nature preserves dot the landscape on either side of the river, drawing visitors from faraway counties. It wouldn’t be surprising if all the above see reduced utility, given the proposed merger’s traffic increases. Even worse, what will become of the dozens of recently completed projects along the Mississippi? Cities across the Midwest have invested significant public funds into making their communities and even their waterfronts a destination for all, and in turn, a boon for small businesses and community groups. The last thing these municipalities need is for this proposed merger to render their ventures pointless.  

The supposed benefits of this merger are simply not worth the costs for our communities. Neither economic productivity nor corporate apathy should be sufficient to fundamentally impair our members’ desire to enjoy the Mississippi River in all its glory. 

We urge the STB to prioritize the economic and environmental health of Mississippi River cities and towns by delaying its comment period around the merger, so that municipalities and citizens alike have ample time to review its impact on their communities. This is the only way our members can enjoy their significant investment along the waterfront and maintain their quality of life — considerations that should be the STB’s ultimate priority.

A merger that would fundamentally impact our members’ way of life mandates prudent discussion, not a rushed approval process. We hope that our elected officials agree and take the necessary steps to urge the STB toward a thorough review. For its economic, recreation, and environmental importance, the Mississippi River certainly deserves as much.