New Railroad May Cross Midwest
Sunday, July 30, 2006
DUBUQUE, Iowa -- On a hot June morning, Kevin Schieffer issued a warning as a pack of big birds flew in to perch on a newly rebuilt stretch of railroad next to the Mississippi River.
"Better be careful, guys," said the railroad executive, surveying the new tracks in his company's high-rail pickup. "We don't slow down too much for buzzards."
The vehicle braked slightly, and the birds flew away.
Bigger obstacles aren't moving quite as easily for Schieffer, who's trying over the objections of the Mayo Clinic, Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) and others to close the deal on a years-long quest to build a 1,000-mile Midwestern railroad line. To pull it off, Schieffer is trying to persuade the Federal Railroad Administration to give him a $2.5 billion loan for the project, among the largest in history.
If it succeeds, it could be a boon to farmers -- and Schieffer.
The project would cut transportation costs for coal, corn and ethanol, and would make Schieffer what Fortune magazine calls "America's first self-made railroad baron since the days of Teddy Roosevelt."
It also would prevail over the protests of people who consider Schieffer a master manipulator of political connections and someone whose dealing can't be trusted.
Schieffer, 48, has been patient. He is now president and chief executive of the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern (DM&E) Railroad, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., but the rail line has been on his mind since he was a 25-year-old junior staff member on Capitol Hill.
He has attended at least a thousand public meetings and conferred with hundreds of landowners and city officials.
On this day, Schieffer is pitching once again, boarding his chartered plane in Sioux Falls well before sunrise. He met with employees and inspected new track at a quick stop in Dubuque and then flew to La Crosse, Wis., for a speech.
"There hasn't been a railroad built in this country in over a hundred years," he told an audience at the annual meeting of the Dairyland Power Cooperative.
Schieffer's biggest roadblock may be the Mayo, which with the help of Dayton and some famous South Dakotans, is trying to block the plan to run coal trains through Rochester, Minn. But Schieffer said he won't bow to Mayo's pressure.