Citizens to Stop the Coal Trains (CSCT), a coalition of leaders who represent all facets of the Rochester, Minn., community, launched an aggressive grassroots campaign against a $1.4 billion coal train proposal proffered by the Dakota Minnesota & Eastern Railroad (DM&E).  If approved, the coal train proposal would be devastating to Rochester, resulting in a mile-long, open-car coal train rumbling through the heart of this bucolic downtown every 40 minutes, 365 days per year.  Traffic delays at Rochester’s railroad crossings would total nearly three hours per day.
More than 1.5 million national and international visitors come each year to Rochester, which has a population of approximately 80,000.  The vast majority of these visitors come because of the world-renown Mayo Clinic, which is the third largest private employer in Minnesota.  Needless to say, Rochester’s economy is heavily dependent on caring for these visitors, as well as their families while they’re in town. 
Thirty-seven coal trains barreling through Rochester every day would endanger public safety, threaten economic vitality and erode quality of life in this community, which is often cited near the top of national “Best Places to Live” rankings.
CSCT formed in July 2000 in anticipation of the Surface Transportation Board’s (STB) release of its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).  One of CSCT’s primary objectives was to persuade the federally appointed independent STB to expand the public comment period of the DEIS from the given 90 days to 180 days.  An extension of this comment period would:
  • Give experts in the legal and environmental fields adequate time to address problematic findings within the DEIS report and submit meaningful analysis to the STB;
  • Allow more time for CSCT to garner support from Rochester citizens and send personal letters to the STB;
  • Slow down the railroad’s momentum for this project; and
  • Send a strong message to DM&E that Rochester is capable of thwarting its coal train project.
We learned that the STB is an independent adjudicatory body, which enables this group of three appointed people to make decisions independent of any other federal office.  However, the STB must consider all statements submitted during the public comment period for this coal train project, so we hoped we could sway the STB to grant an extension based on volume and quality of requests for an extension from citizens and their elected officials.
To help make CSCT’s case to the Rochester public, we researched statistics about the railroad as well as Rochester’s safety, economy and quality of life.  We discovered that the DM&E has the worst safety record of any in its class in the nation. We demonstrated how dependent Rochester is on visitors, using statistics to forecast how significantly even a small drop in patient visits to Mayo Clinic would affect the entire community.  We worked with Rochester’s emergency response units to determine how congestion at railroad crossings would increase response times and threaten lives. 
To better understand which statistics concerned Rochester citizens most, we interviewed citizens representing the groups we were attempting to mobilize — businesses, health care, schools and senior citizens.  We then incorporated these statistics into every news release, interview and speaking opportunity, tailoring the statistics to the specific audience we were trying to reach.
We developed a comprehensive plan to increase our odds of securing an extension to the 90-day public comment period.  Tactical elements of this plan included:
  • Position the CSCT as a leader in advocacy for the city of Rochester and its citizens.
  • Educate all Rochester citizens — not just those who live near the railroad tracks — about the dangers of the coal train proposal and how the coal trains would affect their lives every day.
  • Gain media attention and coverage about the coal train issue and emphasize Rochester’s concerns in clear, concise language.  Add credibility by involving well respected members of the community who represent affected sectors — business, health care, schools and seniors.
  • Bring Rochester’s concerns about the coal train project to the attention of candidates and elected representatives at the local, state and federal levels, and persuade these representatives to submit their own statements and letters to the STB.
  • Provide citizens modes of easy access in contacting the STB to voice their concerns.  Drive traffic to the CSCT Web site and encourage mailing of response cards to the STB.
With objectives in place and budget set at $150,000 for project management, media relations, video and advertising production, event management and Web site creation, we set out to implement this aggressive plan within a short timeframe — five months.
We gained momentum as each tactic within our program was executed.  Some of our milestone efforts included:
  • Holding a CSCT press conference the same day that the DEIS was released.  The press conference drew more than 100 people and garnered numerous print and broadcast stories.
  • Sending a CSCT delegation to Washington, D.C., to meet with key members of Congress.  This trip prompted letters of support from Governor Ventura and Rep. Gutknecht for an extension to the public comment period. 
  • Producing a 10-minute video to capture the attention of local residents by showing how devastating the effects of coal trains would be for Rochester.
  • Arranging dozens of speaking engagements across the Rochester community.
  • Launching a local print and broadcast advertising campaign. This ad campaign was phased to target our key audiences — businesses, schools, health care and seniors.  The print ads provided response cards that readers could fill out and send to the STB, while the broadcast ads drove traffic to the CSCT Web site.
  • Developing a Web site to inform concerned citizens and provide them with the means to voice their own concerns to the STB.
  • Promoting a public rally and town hall meeting.  These events were a huge show of force, attracting hundreds of button-wearing, sign-carrying residents who supported our efforts.
The STB’s 90-day public comment period was scheduled to end on Jan. 6.  On December 14, the STB announced that it was extending this comment period by an additional 60 days.  There’s no doubt CSCT influenced the STB’s decision by marshalling thousands of letters and emails from concerned citizens, persuading Governor Ventura and other elected officials to request an extension and securing prominent media placements throughout this four month period. 
Just recently, the campaign was featured in Ragan’s Interactive Public Relations February 2001 issue.  Here is an exerpt:  “The extension is a significant win for us —one that’ll give us more time to fully review the 5,000-plus page document” that outlines the environmental impact of the train proposal, says John Wade, co-chairman, Citizens to Stop the Coal Trains.
Further, the time delay adds cost and aggravation for The Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad (DM&E), which proposed the rail line.
“As the process gets longer and more complex, the market changes, the economy changes and prices change.  There could come a point when we’re no longer able to afford the project,” says Rick Daugherty, public affairs officer for DM&E.  “The billion dollar question remains:  How long will that be?”