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Democratic challengers to PSC accuse Republicans of ‘governing by emergency’

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FARGO – Two Democratic challengers vying for seats on the state’s Public Service Commission are accusing the Republican incumbents of “governing by emergency” and of failing to lead when it comes to rail access and safety.

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Sen. Tyler Axness, D-Fargo, and Todd Reisenauer were in Fargo on Tuesday promoting their RAILS Plan, or Railroad Access and Increased Line Safety, which they say would improve rail infrastructure, require railroads to submit commodity data to the state and create a state rail inspection program.

The two Democrats said incumbents Brian Kalk and Julie Fedorchak, both Republicans, lacked leadership, both before and after December’s fiery oil train derailment and explosion near Casselton.

“Try as they might, they cannot hide from the fact that the current commissioners were in office when that crude trail struck a derailed grain train and exploded near Casselton, causing prolonged fear in our communities across the state of North Dakota,” Axness said, “while 30 other states showed leadership to act and create a rail inspection program before an incident occurred.”

Axness, who represents District 16 in the state Senate, is running against Fedorchak for a special two-year term on the commission. Reisenauer, a Fargo-based independent business consultant, is campaigning against Kalk for a normal six-year term.

Reisenauer pointed to a story that ran in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead after the Casselton derailment that described the impact a similar event would have in downtown Fargo.

More than 5,000 residents would have to be evacuated within a 1.25-mile radius if an incident occurred at the intersection of Broadway and Main Avenue.

“That should’ve served as a wake-up call, as a springboard to solutions and proactive government led by the Public Service Commission,” Reisenauer said. “But unfortunately that is not what we’ve seen. They have not led.”

A study would be conducted through the RAILS Plan to determine the infrastructure needs of the state’s rail system by gathering information from rail companies, agriculture groups, oil companies and Amtrak. The state would pay for 25 percent of the upgrades.

With the RAILS Plan, the PSC also would conduct a first-responders roundtable to learn what emergency personnel need to adequately respond to the increase in rail traffic.

In separate interviews Tuesday, Fedorchak and Kalk said they have been focused on rail and pipeline safety during their time on the commission. They both shrugged off the challengers’ claims as “just politics.”

“I’ve got a strong background of leadership, of leading in emergency response planning,” Kalk said. “My background in the Marine Corps was that way. So anybody that says we’re not taking the lead on that, I’d just let my record speak for that.”

Fedorchak said she is working with the Federal Railroad Administration on setting up a state rail inspection program, one that is “not just a proposal with a clever acronym,” and one that she believes has the support of Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

Her program, she said, focuses on analyzing where accidents are frequently occurring and finding the root causes. She said she’ll push for the program in the next legislative session and has already started talks with legislators about how to budget for it.

“We’re well down this path already,” Fedorchak said. “I’m pleased that Tyler Axness is supportive because I fully expect he’ll be serving in the Senate after the election, and I look forward to working with him in tandem in his role there to support the rail safety program that we’re going to be proposing.”

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Erik Burgess
Erik Burgess covers city and county government for The Forum. He started as the paper's night reporter in 2012, after graduating from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. He was born and raised in Grand Forks, N.D., and also spent time interning at the Grand Forks Herald.  Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com
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