Stories From Progressive’s Midwest Towns

Stories From Progressive’s Midwest Towns

There are two sides to every story. When it comes to the freight rail industry, the two sides tend to be voices of those who stand to profit and voices of those who will be affected by the industry behind the profits. As the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission prepares to approve a new 10-year freight rail operating agreement with Progressive Rail (PGR) of Lakeville, MN, it’s helpful to consider stories from both of these sides in communities where Progressive Rail currently operates.

Cannon Falls, MN—Proposed liquid asphalt facility

Emotions ran high at an October 2015 City Council meeting in Cannon Falls, MN. Mayor Robbie Robinson was enthusiastic about Progressive Rail’s plans to partner with Bituminous Roadways to build a storage facility designed to house 6.7 million gallons of 300-degree liquid asphalt along the rail line. The Planning Commission had endorsed the plan after two sparsely attended public hearings. After 80 minutes of debate, the city council unanimously rejected the rezoning request that would have allowed the expansion.

Robinson referred to Progressive as a good neighbor and said that the community's concerns expressed at the meeting represented “small mindedness.”

An unidentified woman prompted cheers from the crowd of community members when she responded to Robinson:

“You talk about small mindedness; here’s small mindedness — until Progressive Rail or this asphalt plant is in your backyard, you could give a crap about how it affects the rest of us because you aren’t living directly there. And you’re going to call us small minded? This affects our health, our property values, our whole quality of life. It doesn’t belong where people live.”

During an interview a week later Progressive Rail President Dave Fellon said, “Nobody won last week,” pointing out that the Bituminous facility represented a “significant” financial investment in the town that would have had a positive impact on the city’s tax rolls while creating jobs.

Bridgewater Township, MN—Proposed ethanol facility

Eight years earlier in May of 2007, a similar community debate had waged over a proposed ethanol plant that Progressive Rail and partner Advanced BioEnergy hoped to construct in Bridgewater Township, MN. Although some community members were enticed by a potential new source of local income, others were concerned that the proposed ethanol plant would use between 350 and 600 million gallons of water per year.

According to Locally Grown (LoGro) Northfield, “Progressive Rail President Dave Fellon told the town board (that) spring that if the ethanol plant isn’t built, a rail company could pursue industrial use of the land without local approval.”

Eagle point, WI—Frac sand industry/proposed road closure

Eagle Point, WI is still waiting for a final ruling to a lengthy debate over Progressive Rail’s petition to close 95th Avenue to assemble mile-long trains. Recently, Judge David Albino wrote the Office of Commissioner of Railroads (OCR) for the State of Wisconsin stating that the petition had been denied. However, the Commission is not required to side with the judge.  

Dennis Ferstenou, Chairman of the Town of Eagle Point, said “The town was opposed to closing that road because it serves an important route for emergency services. It would also impact traffic and other roads.”

Progressive Rail officials delivered this statement about Eagle Point road blockages resulting from their trains:

“Closing the 95th Avenue crossing allows the railroad to substantially reduce blockages of Highway S and virtually eliminate those on 105th Avenue. We believe the improved traffic flow across two east-west traffic corridors is preferable to the current situation in which the motoring public is uncertain if one, two or all three corridors in the area could be blocked due to rail operations. Keeping the 95th Avenue crossing open is less safe for all parties because the number and length of blockages of Highway S, 95th Avenue, and 105th Avenue will continue.”

The current OCR ruling allows Progressive Rail to run a second track across 95th Avenue which will likely increase blockages. While additional blockages aren’t a good thing, the community members who fought the road closure petition say it’s better than losing the road to closure.

Chippewa Falls, WI—Frac sand industry

In a July 2014 Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism story, Chippewa Falls resident Patricia Popple described the dramatic increase in freight rail traffic as a result of growing frac sand industry, “Train traffic in the area was once much less frequent, and that the trains were shorter. Now,” she said, “They go through here any hour of the night and day…and have to sound whistles every time they go through an intersection.”

Jeff Plale, Wisconsin’s railroad commissioner estimates, “Progressive Rail, has increased from one train a week to two or three a day — which would be about 15 to 20 times more traffic.”

According to Progressive President Dave Fellon, the frac sand business has been a “huge win for northwest Wisconsin (since) the volume has justified a lot of upgrades.”

Popple described health, safety, and traffic concerns related to Progressive Rail’s frac sand operations in an April 2018 letter to Santa Cruz County and predicted:

“At the moment, some people are grateful for jobs and a few are profiting along with Progressive. However, I’ll bet we will all miss our beautiful landscape when the oil and gas fracking industries decline and the jobs disappear.”

Lakeville, MN (Progressive Rail’s hometown)—environmental violations and long term railcar storage

Community members in Lakeville, MN have been speaking out for nearly a decade about railcars that have divided their neighborhoods for months at a time collecting stagnant water and graffiti and raising safety, health, and general blight concerns.

Speaking about the railcars, local preschool owner and community advocate Pam Steinhagen wrote in a 2018 Letter to Santa Cruz County:

“Progressive Rail moves them without warning, sometimes right when the nearby middle school lets out, knowing full well that kids climb under the trains to get home. When moving trains, they have blocked the entrance to our neighborhood repeatedly, sometimes for more than 45 minutes... When we directly address owner Dave Fellon and others at Progressive Rail they are not friendly and tell us to watch our children more carefully, that they have a right to park these cars despite the safety risk and general blight on this community.”

Lakeville Mayor Doug Anderson says:

“The city has no control over this line which is under federal authority and is operated by Progressive Rail. The company is storing cars for its clients until business picks up.”

Railcar storage is not the only concern in the rail operator’s hometown. According to a 2011 Thisweek Farmington and Lakeville article (page 3), when Progressive Rail was handling about one million gallons of oil and hazardous materials a month at its Lakeville facility, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) fined them $75,000 for alleged violations including:

  1. Failure to notify the MPCA immediately of a number of spills including the release of about 30,000 gallons of animal tallow and a spill of ferric chloride solution within ten feet of a stormwater drain

  2. Failure to take reasonable steps to prevent spills of oil and other hazardous substances that might pollute land, water, and air and threaten the public’s safety and health. Substances such as ethanol, sulfuric acid solution, and ferric chloride solution were being transferred over the railbed and cracked asphalt within ten feel of stormwater inlets instead of in a secondary containment area

  3. Failure to have an industrial stormwater permit and a stormwater pollution-prevention plan

  4. Allowing spilled materials to enter the stormwater conveyance system and be discharged directly into the soil

When the reporter covering the 2011 story asked Progressive Rail President/Owner Dave Fellon to comment in regard to the MPCA fines and alleged violations, he declined.  

Things to consider before signing a Progressive Rail contract

In a presentation delivered to the RTC in October, on page 9 PGR Director of Marketing Brandon Bauer states “Our marketing strategy is to, quite simply, connect our customers to larger markets, further away via PGR lines.” At the April 19 RTC meeting, Fellon made it clear that PGR is not interested in confining freight to Watsonville. They want to establish and grow a freight business that spans the entire 32-mile branch line. According to PGR President/Owner Dave Fellon they have “customers who have already provided their interest in expanding their operations to include Santa Cruz.”

Other than Lansing Trade whose interest in constructing a Propane Distribution Terminal in Watsonville was mentioned in PGR’s January 2018 proposal, Progressive rail has not stated who these potential customers are. Whoever they are, if the RTC signs a contract with Progressive Rail and their customers want to bring their business to our county, federal preemption and interstate commerce laws might allow them to do so even if Santa Cruz County community members would rather they didn’t.