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Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014

Your view: North way is best way

Friday, April 7, 2006

Not everyone will care, of course, but there's a great deal going on with the railroad question. Obviously, this is for those who do.

Of the several comments we've heard from the public relations people from Union Pacific, one set of statements is not in doubt. Once they can get past the Surface Transportation Board, they say, they will be able to increase train traffic through our community at will. They have been brazenly candid on that point.

Actually, it's not quite that simple. Union Pacific will insist, for example, that federal money be spent to upgrade the safety devices at railway crossings. Without it they would lose their exemption from tort liability when accidents occur. There's no way their bean-counters will let them run trains where they don't enjoy that exemption. But, that's a whole other story.

Fundamentally though, this overall process is the only chance we'll have to affect these events. It is, as Episcopal ministers say at weddings: "speak now, or forever hold your peace."

The Billy Packers of the coffee shops though may want to revise their original book. Things looked pretty bleak for a while, but there's been some good news. This may not be the "done deal" originally proclaimed. If you want to follow the action, here's some of the play by play so far:

Union Pacific submitted their track swap proposal to the Surface Transportation Board (STB), a federal agency known to be friendly to their industry, and whose fundamental charge is to maintain a balance between the rights of carriers (the railroads) and shippers. The interests of small cities along the rail lines generally get a lower priority.

By law, the STB is required to consider the impact of their decisions on communities, and this includes such issues as noise, safety and available alternatives (we have one). But, still and all, you'd have to say: Advantage: Union Pacific.

Of the 27,000 some odd lobbyists in Washington, they hired Linda J. Morgan, the recently retired chairman of the Surface Transportation Board, fresh through the revolving door. Everyone will say they're counting on her "knowledge of the process," but you know her pitch to get hired included her personal relationships. Sad as this may be, once more you'd have to say Advantage: Union Pacific.

They hired Jack Oliver, the Phenom-fundraiser for President Bush who raised $250 million in 2004, shattering all records. The son of the late John Oliver of Cape Girardeau, Jack is a gifted individual who use to work in public service, but has now gone private. His considerable skills are for hire. Personally, I wish him well, but just not here. No question about it though, anyone who can raise that kind of money gets his phone calls returned: Advantage Union Pacific.

Finally, they secured the eager cooperation of some mid-level civil servants in MoDOT. A secret draft memo, uncovered by the city, from MoDOT to the Surface Transportation Board, actually endorsed Union Pacific's proposal and pledged an unstated amount of public funding to make it possible.

Since MoDOT distributes the federal funds Union Pacific needs to get their immunity from law suits, you can see how critical their complicity was to Union Pacific's plan.

That memo was uncovered before it was sent. When it was, MoDOT invited the cities to have a hand in revising it. Then, while they failed to return phone calls or answer e-mails, they did a mild rewrite and sent it. I suppose they thought they could pull that stunt without it becoming public. They were wrong. If you wondered why your Mayor accused MoDOT of being "in bed" with the railroad, that's why.

The damage has been done, however. The critical pledge of public funding has been made. It's been made by mid-level bureaucrats working freelance out of a satellite office of a state agency, but it's been made. Final advantage: Union Pacific.

So you can't really blame the odds-makers. For the longest time, this looked like UConn vs. George Mason...before the opening buzzer.

But then the scales began to tip in our direction. The deciding factors may turn out to be a fatal flaw in the plan itself and a viable option.

The flaw is the increase in train traffic this plan puts over U.S. Highway 60 at Morehouse (on grade for at least two years). Actually, the traffic projections are a subplot all their own.

Officially, in a sworn statement made "under paid of perjury," George Sturm, Union Pacific's general manager, told the STB the traffic count between Sikeston and Dexter will rise from one train per week to ten trains per day.

Unofficially, Chris Peterson of Union Pacific conceded publicly that the number could go as high as 20 trains per day. In private conversations, Steve Sand, UP's land acquisition manager has said the number could reach 40 trains per day. Once again, these statements are intermixed with their comments that "once we get past the STB", they can do anything they want. They might have added, "what the STB doesn't know..."

All this may get them past "Go" and no doubt they'll get their $200, but unless Mr. Sturm has a "get out of jail free card" (perjury carries a mandatory jail sentence), he might want to get control of his employees, and their all-

too-candid statements. That's just a friendly suggestion. Personally, I believe them.

At any rate, their plan will put anywhere from 10 to 20 to 40 (take your pick) trains a day across an four lane divided highway where 11,000 cars and trucks a day driving 65 mph will be forced to come to a complete stop. Well, we hope most of them anyway (more on that later).

That, among other things, brought Jo Ann Emerson into the picture to protect the people of southeast Missouri from a death sentence. For Jo Ann Emerson, "People Before Politics" is not a slogan or a punch line, it's a pledge.

Beyond the leadership she's offered her colleagues on this issue, she sits on Appropriations. They control where federal dollars are spent, but also where they may not be spent. Advantage: Sikeston (actually Big Advantage Sikeston).

Then, with Martin Priggel's suggestion that UP reconsider their original plan to double-track the Rockview to Dexter line, our two United States Senators, Kit Bond and Jim Talent stepped into the ring and into our corner.

They've written a wonderful letter to the CEO of Union Pacific citing, "legitimate reasons to ask that alternatives be considered before implementing a change which would impact the daily lives of thousands of citizens."

A copy of this letter was sent to the STB and MoDOT (Kit Bond recently got MoDOT an additional $1.3 billion in highway money. They'll listen to him.) But, the letter itself was addressed to Union Pacific. That's significant.

Our Senators did not enter this letter for the record, pro-forma, as part of the quasi-judicial process at STB. They did not just play to the rabble and "punch our ticket." This was a personal request to James R. Young, chief executive officer and president of Union Pacific Corporation. Their letter is formal and polite, as you'd expect, but the message is clear: "Please back off."

Kit Bond may get someone's attention. He's the chairman of the Transportation Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Assuming generally that Union Pacific has other issues on the national stage (count on it), he's one man they want to keep happy. He's made a personal commitment to us. Now they have something at risk. Thank you Senator Bond.

In the Senate, Jim Talent has a growing reputation for leadership on transportation issues. At the center of air, rail, highway and river systems, Missouri is a transportation state.

Union Pacific and Burlington Northern both recognize this. Their PACs have already contributed $13,500 towards his re-election. If however, anyone thought that would buy them more than his best judgment and principled leadership in the public's interest, they miscalculated. Thank you Senator Talent. In a cynical world, it restores the faith. We needed that.

So, if this were a chess game, we've just seen a queen and two powerful kings step forward to protect their pawn. They are not rich (I recently saw Senator Bond driving himself to work in Washington. I think his car is older than mine). But they are powerful and they're on our side. Oh yes definitely, Advantage: Sikeston.

The price tag for Union Pacific to destroy our community stands at $24 million and climbing. At least half of that (probably much more) must come from the public treasury. That means that if all else fails, if we get no real hearing before the Surface Transportation Board, one final option remains. Never underestimate the power of the purse.

In the FY 2007 Department of Transportation Appropriations Bill, language can be inserted: "None of the funds appropriated by this act may be spent to implement the Surface Transportation Board's decision in docket number FD 346720." That would block any direct federal funds as well as any pass-

through federal dollars administered by MoDOT. No federal dollars, no tort liability exemption--.choo-choo go bye-bye. To torture one last sports metaphor, that would be "Game, Set, and Match."

We know they can do it, but more importantly Union Pacific knows they can do it. But, that's the "nuclear option" here. Everyone would get upset and nothing would be gained. The "northern option" should be looking better and better to all concerned. This is not over.

Josh Bill