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Sioux Falls, S.D., switching yard plan recovers after falling off rails

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In July 2005, former Sioux Falls, S.D., Mayor Dave Munson stood on the east bank of the Big Sioux River near the white monolith of the abandoned Zip Feed Mill, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reports. He looked west toward downtown and at rows of railroad tracks before him and imagined the future. In his mind, new retail, residential, commercial and entertainment development enlivened the east bank. The tracks were gone.

"I can see it. I can
see it. I can see it," he repeated eagerly.

In the federal
transportation bill passed earlier that summer, South Dakota Sens. Tim Johnson
and John Thune had secured a $40-million appropriation to enable Sioux Falls
officials to remove the BNSF switching yard from an area on the east bank
bounded by Sixth Street on the north and the 10th Street viaduct on the south.
A new switching yard would be built between Sioux Falls and Brandon. About 16
acres bordering the east side of downtown newly freed of tracks would be
available for redevelopment.

A lengthy environmental
review, delays in settling on a new switching yard location and a severe
recession conspired to postpone the project, originally projected to take four
years to complete. However, city officials this month disclosed a new timetable
that will have rail relocation design work and land acquisition completed by
2013. The downtown tracks will be reduced to two, and a new switching yard will
be built by 2014.

In the interim, Munson’s
vision of a revitalized east bank already is coming to pass. The Zip mill has
been replaced by Cherapa Place. The former Schoeneman’s lumber yard is giving
way to a new CNA Surety building, and Ramkota Cos. CEO David Sweet said the
company is considering building a hotel and possibly condominiums on part of
the Schoeneman’s site. The city also is adding amenities along the river greenway.
Demolishing the Eighth Street parking ramp spanning the river and relocating
the switching yard would be the next big projects on the east bank.

When a new switching yard
is built, city officials anticipate an industrial corridor between Sioux Falls
and Brandon will emerge. It will have rail access and connections to Interstate
90, the new South Dakota Highway 100 and a potential new Benson Road extension
to Holly Boulevard in Brandon.

Even if it takes almost a
decade from the time Congress wrote the $40-million check to Sioux Falls to
move the switching yard and thus complete rail traffic consolidation through
the city that began in 2002, Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce President
Evan Nolte thinks Sioux Falls has been well-served.

To make the next phase of
east bank development occur, the city and BNSF are stepping up efforts to
design a new switching yard and access to it from the west. Environmental
reviews will follow. Local governments will be drawn in as land between Sioux
Falls and Brandon zoned for agricultural use will need to be rezoned for
industry. Eventually, much of the land probably will be annexed either by Sioux
Falls or Brandon.

The earmark secured in
2005 to relocate the switching yard is safe. Although Congress might consider
eliminating earmarks in the future as a deficit reduction measure, the money
already appropriated to the Federal Highway Administration for the Sioux Falls
railroad project will not be taken back, according to spokesmen for both
Johnson and Thune.

The BNSF also has made
two suggestions to the city that could help move the project forward. To avoid
potential problems with the Big Sioux floodplain or interfering with critical
habitat for the Topeka shiner, a federally-designated endangered species that
uses Big Sioux tributaries, railroad officials suggested moving the new
switching yard north of Rice Street, away from the river and the BNSF main line
tracks. City engineers are studying whether that can be done without
interfering with Xcel Energy operations or crossing the route of the future
Highway 100.

In addition, while a second
bridge across the Big Sioux at Falls Park originally was envisioned to enable
eastbound rail traffic to go both south to Canton or continue east to the BNSF
line, railroad officials said the existing bridge would suffice for both if a
connector is built on the east half of the structure to allow rail traffic to
go either south or east. A grade separation would keep trains from interfering
with pedestrians and bicyclists on the bike trail. Being able to avoid building
a second bridge would reduce visual effects at Falls Park and could save the
city money.

"We need to first
see if it works operationally and see engineering-wise if it can be
built," says Joshua Peterson, principal construction engineer for the city
of Sioux Falls. "Rail traffic would have to be maintained across the bridge
during construction. Once we figure out if that will work, we would look at environmental
impacts to the falls themselves and historical features out here like the Queen
Bee mill. We would make sure those are properly addressed," he says. It
all can be done and still accommodate the 2014 deadline, Peterson adds.

Now, rail in Sioux Falls
is in the shape of a Y. Tracks coming in from Madison to the west and Corson
from the east form the arms of the Y, and a line south to Canton is the post.

"The Y will always
remain," Public Works Director Mark Cotter says.

But getting the switching
yard moved could dramatically reduce the size of the 10th Street viaduct in
years to come. "Twenty-five years down the road, when the viaduct needs to
be reconstructed, we can bring in dirt," Cotter says, because the viaduct
no longer would have to span an entire switching yard. "Roads are cheaper
to repair than bridges," Cotter says.

City officials already have
had discussions with existing businesses in Sioux Falls and companies from
outside the city that would consider relocating to an industrial zone near a
new rail switching yard between Sioux Falls and Brandon, Cooper says. But
cities and states are in fierce competition for such economic development, he
adds, and in both a new industrial corridor and on the east bank of the river
downtown, developers would look for municipal and state financial incentives.

From BNSF’s point of view,
making sure existing customers remain well-served and being able to handle in a
new facility the five or six daily trains that use the existing switching yard
are the priorities, according to BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth.

"We are happy to
work with the city on this," she says. "We need to find something
that is workable from both standpoints. We’re not going into this process
thinking, ‘How can we get an improved benefit?’ We’re trying to work with the
city on something that accommodates both of us. From our standpoint, that’s the
goal: our same operating capacity, not anything more, not anything less."

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