PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A rail line that runs west from Mitchell intends to use federal and state funds for a new a siding at the Liberty Grain elevator near Kimball. But the South Dakota Railroad Board wants Ringneck & Western Railroad to reconsider its latest plan for the project.
State government previously owned what was known as the MRC line and indirectly leased the operating rights to Dakota Southern, a subsidiary of Midwest Pacific Rail Net and Logistics owned by Mike Williams. One of the improvement projects was a 10,000-foot pass-and-meet siding at Liberty Grain.
The Federal Railroad Administration on May 20, 2020, approved a special transportation circumstances grant of $1,560,000 toward the $2.5 million project, while the state board agreed to pay $640,000. In return, Williams promised to make three annual payments of $500,000 to the board.
Later that same year, Watco Companies purchased the 285-mile route, called it Ringneck & Western and went forward with the siding project. But the new owner found that the 10,000-foot siding would affect seven wetlands. Watco instead proposed a shorter siding of 7,900 feet. The FRA accepted the change but also reduced its grant to $1,232,400.
Watco officials brought the revised plan to the state board Wednesday. The members deadlocked 2-2 on whether to accept it. A 115-car unit train could be 7,800 feet in length. Neither Jerry Cope of Rapid City nor Jeff Burket of Spearfish thought a 7,900-foot siding was long enough. They voted against it.
Burket said he was concerned “a lot” about the length. Said Cope, “That’s my concern as well.”
For Burket, a 7,900-foot siding was “right on the edge.” He said, “I’m not hooked on 10,000. I’m not hooked on 7,900 either.” Cope said he wants “to know how the wetlands lay and how that incrementally affects things. That would do a lot for my comfort level.”
Watco officials said they would need to take any further revisions back to the FRA for another round of review in hope of approval. Jeff Cooley from Civil Design Inc., who’s advising Watco on the project, said the 7,900-foot proposal is bookended by wetlands on each side.
State Transportation Secretary Joel Jundt originally wanted the board to accept the revised plan — and keep the state board’s contribution at $640,000; but after hearing the board members’ comments, he recommended that Watco bring a plan for a longer siding to the board’s June meeting.
Burket, the board’s chair, suggested Watco bring several options.
“I think that would make me feel a little better,” he said.