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Money for Presho rail line is now in a state of uncertainty

PIERRE -- Sen. Mike Vehle had to change the amount from $6 million to a dollar Tuesday, but his legislation remains alive for rebuilding a stretch of railroad west from Chamberlain to Presho.

The amended version of SB 137 now moves to the House of Representatives after the Senate’s 35-0 vote. Vehle, R-Mitchell, called it “a vision and an opportunity.”

Many spending bills were passed at $1 in recent days, as each chamber of the Legislature kept them active while waiting for decisions on revenue estimates from the Joint Committee on Appropriations, whose members oversee state government’s budget.

Two officials from Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s administration testified Friday against Vehle’s $6 million version but the Senate Appropriations Committee gave its endorsement 9-0.

The Senate meanwhile gave the governor something he wanted on railroads Tuesday. Senators voted 33-2 for SB 36 that would transfer the spending and management powers of the state railroad authority to the state railroad board that has generally handled loans and grant to projects.

Vehle gave credit to then-Gov. Bill Janklow and the Legislature for their actions in 1980 preserving railroad routes throughout South Dakota after the bankruptcy of the Milwaukee Road. The authority was established to buy track.

The core routes of the state-owned lines were sold to Burlington Northern Santa Fe in 2005. But the $40 million of proceeds was pulled for other purposes.

The past decade has seen a revival of the eastern-most portion of the state-owned line between Mitchell and Rapid City. Track from Mitchell to Chamberlain has been rehabilitated with a combination of federal, state, private and local funds. A new grain-loading and fertilizer-distribution center was built near Kimball as a result.

Vehle said the current proposed project west to Presho would first reach Reliance where he was born. He said it would be turning one-time money into a lifetime benefit for producers.

The governor also has legislation pending that would provide $1.2 million for rebuilding the railroad bridge over the Missouri River between Chamberlain and Oacoma. He also has a study under way on rail service and opportunities throughout South Dakota.

Sen. Larry Lucas, D-Mission, spoke in favor of Vehle’s plan Tuesday and said it would be “foolish” to refurbish the bridge without continuing farther west.

Sen. David Omdahl, R-Sioux Falls, likewise supported Vehle’s legislation, saying rail is a key to economic development in South Dakota.

Daugaard recently appointed two new members to the state railroad board, Harlan Quenzer of Mitchell and Jerry Cope of Rapid City. The board meets Thursday.