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McBroom, Tiffany seek answers on rail service

Public forums held in Marquette, Rhinelander

Christie Bleck photo Wisconsin state Sen. Tom Tiffany, left, and Michigan state Sen. Ed McBroom lead a public forum Monday at the Marquette Township Community Center on the rail system in the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin. The legislators listened to a variety of comments from local business people and other interested parties.

MARQUETTE — The possibility for a more robust rail system in the Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin was the focus of a public forum at the Marquette Township Community Center.

Michigan state Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, and Wisconsin state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, hosted Monday’s event.

Tiffany said that several months ago he and McBroom discussed rail service in the U.P. and northern Wisconsin, rates and the level of service received from the railroad industry.

McBroom said he and Tiffany realize how critical rail is to businesses and the industries across their regions, which he stressed are tied economically.

He also noted businesses and communities want to accomplish more with rail.

“It would relieve a lot of the pressure on the road systems and could be really good for business,” McBroom said, “and yet a lot of businesses are finding it difficult to do.”

Tiffany agreed the situation could be better.

“There’s really room for improvement,” Tiffany said, “and we thought it would be a good time to have public hearings to be able to hear the scope of the concerns and see if there’s something we can do about it.”

Tiffany said those concerns, which have come from shippers, include insufficient services and high rates.

“It’s discouraging them from using rail to be able to transport those goods that they have,” Tiffany said, “so I think we can do much better.”

He said a big issue concerns a major player, the Canadian National Railway.

“Is CN going to offer more service, better rates, or is there the possibility that they could set up some short-line railroads that can do that part of it? Because I understand CN’s business model,” Tiffany said. “Like the other Class I railroads, they want to ship stuff distances, and that’s fine.”

However, he noted CN might not want to handle a lot of switching.

“Then let’s set up some short-line railroads to be able to do that, to aggregate those railcars,” Tiffany said.

One of his main concerns involves his home state.

“When you get to Highway 8 in Wisconsin from Pembine to Rhinelander, that is out of service currently, and that is a critical line that has to be opened up because that gives us an east-west route then, and will be helpful to both shippers in the Upper Peninsula as well as Wisconsin,” Tiffany said.

McBroom said whenever there’s a monopoly similar to the situation the region has with CN, it’s crucial to have a good relationship with it, or a strong regulatory body.

“Finding that balance point is critical,” McBroom said.

McBroom said he has talked with businesses that have struggled with regulatory rail requirements, and alternate transportation becomes a solution.

“The burden is too high, and then they end up using other forms or not doing the expansion they planned to do,” McBroom said.

The problems, he said, involve schedule and rate issues, insurance levels and related fees, which can be too high a burden for many small businesses to meet.

The forest products and mining industries, as well as aggregates, are the biggest players in rail across the U.P. and northern Wisconsin, McBroom said, but other industries include agriculture, manufacturing products and finished wood products.

“There’s a lot of other opportunities that need to be recognized and that are at a smaller rate, so how do we get them into the mix?” McBroom asked.

Audience members, who came from entities such as Michigan Tech University as well as paper and lumber companies, expressed a variety of concerns, including competitive rates and limited CN equipment availability.

“This is the first step in identifying problems and hopefully coming to solutions,” Tiffany said.

Another forum was held Wednesday in Rhinelander.

Tiffany said he and McBroom will get in touch with federal legislators and likely the Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulatory body, to identify concerns and possible solutions.

McBroom said discussions likely will take place with CN and other rail companies as well.

“This isn’t about necessarily finding out, should we do subsidies or something like that?” McBroom said. “It’s finding out what’s out there, what could be done, what are businesses offering, what’s the rail company coming back with, and how can the government play a role in making sure that all the play is fair and upfront.”

To submit written comments on the issue, contact McBroom’s office at SenEMcBroom@senate.michigan.gov., or Tiffany’s office at Sen.Tiffany@legis.wi.gov.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250, or cbleck@miningjournal.net.

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