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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Despite $40million kick, South Dakota rail yard unmoved

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The plan to relocate a rail switching yard in downtown Sioux Falls, S.D., got a $40-million boost five years ago, but the project hasn't even begun, the Argus Leader reports. Though the project was scheduled to be completed 2009, the city still is working its way through an environmental review that could take the rest of this year.

The move will free up for redevelopment the land that BNSF tracks occupy along the east bank of the Big Sioux River south of Falls Park, and improve traffic flow on Sixth and Eighth streets by separating trains and vehicles.

Sens. Tim Johnson and John Thune each secured $20 million in the 2005 transportation bill.

After the environmental review is completed, designing and building a new switching yard and a new rail bridge across the river south of Falls Park and pulling up the old tracks on the east bank will take at least two more years, Public Works Assistant Director Kevin Smith estimates.

"We'd like to get it done," says Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce Spokesman Robert O'Connell. The ongoing work "continues the uncertainty when people are talking about projects for downtown.

"We want to be ready when the economy does open up with the railroad moved. We want to make sure we have the space available when we're ready to go," he says.

The new switching yard will likely be built somewhere in the corridor between Sioux Falls and Brandon.

Smith continues to believe the federal appropriation will drive the project to completion ahead of dates projected when the idea of moving the switching yard was conceived, before the $40 million became available.

"I still think this will be done earlier than people 10 years ago thought it would be done," he says.

When the appropriation was announced in 2005, Mayor Dave Munson said relocating the switching yard was important enough that he would begin consulting with engineers the next day. Since then, the national economic recession the past two years has slowed the pace of downtown development and eliminated some of the urgency to get the rail project done, according to Munson. But he insists, "all the parties know the importance that it continues to move forward, and I am comfortable it will get done."

Smith says the federal money has been allocated and is being held by the Federal Highway Administration.