Economic and community effects of freight rail in Minnesota

To improve the understanding of freight transportation’s value in Minnesota, researchers from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs are conducting a study on the economic and community effects of freight transportation.

The project, focused on freight rail, is investigating opportunities to give local officials and the general public a better understanding of freight benefits and to leverage private investment in rail infrastructure for a more competitive Minnesota economy.

Frank Douma, research fellow with the Humphrey School, described findings from the first 6 months of the 18-month study in a presentation at the CTS Research Conference on May 22. The project is funded by the BNSF Foundation.

Initial findings from the study suggest that freight rail is already of value to the Minnesota economy, and it continues to grow. The Minnesota rail system is first in the nation in the movement of iron ore, third in farm products, and fourth in food, Douma said.

However, many economic benefits of freight rail—such as sustaining high-paying jobs—occur behind the scenes, which means that these positive effects are less visible to the general public and local officials than other aspects of freight rail.

“Very few members of the general public are exposed to trains on a daily basis, and when they do encounter them, they don’t see the dollar signs as the trains go by,” Douma said.

Instead, the public often has negative responses to the associated noise or long wait times at crossings. “This can be a challenge for local officials, who hear these negative responses instead of the positive economic benefits freight rail may be providing to their area,” Douma said.

To help build awareness of freight rail’s benefits, Douma and the research team suggest conducting outreach to freight stakeholders, local officials, and the general public. Outreach efforts should take advantage of opportunities to demonstrate how freight rail contributes to and could potentially improve Minnesota’s economic competitiveness.

The research team plans to help facilitate this outreach with a freight economy forum September 20 at the Humphrey School in Minneapolis. The event will convene state and local economic development officials, shippers, carriers, and elected officials to examine the current and future effects of freight rail in Minnesota. Details will be posted on the CTS Events web page as they become available.