Canadian National Railroad may never reopen tracks
The federal government is in the midst of spending $15 million to repair roads, bridges and culverts wiped out by 2016 storms, but some roads and the rail lines linking Ashland to the rest of the state likely never will reopen.
The U.S. Forest Service is “in full construction mode” fixing storm-damaged forest roads in Ashland, Bayfield and Sawyer Counties, the service said.
But many of those roads remain impassible and the demolished bridges that provided Ashland’s only link to the nation’s rail line are in “discontinuance,” which means that they are out of use but not yet abandoned, Rich Kedzier of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation said.
“The cost of repairs, based on a brief site visit and helicopter flyovers, was in the millions of dollars,” he said of the rail lines.
The storms struck northern Wisconsin on July 11, 2016, when more than a foot of rain fell in a few hours in some areas of Ashland and Bayfield County. The damage caused by that storm and a second violent wind and rainstorm that struck 10 days later exceeded $36 million. The surge of water caused hundreds of washouts as well as the failure of six major truck bridges, 14 large culverts and hundreds of smaller culverts. It also destroyed a railroad bridge south of Ashland, leaving tracks dangling in space.
Canadian National Manager of Corporate Development Brian Buchanan said the company has no customers that need rail connections with Ashland, so it is unlikely the tracks will ever be used again. He said CN was under no obligation to repair or maintain the line.
“There is no business reason to. It would be money spent with no justification,” Buchanan said.
Ashland Area Development Corporation Executive Director Betsey Harries said losing the rail line to Ashland has development implications.
“Without that railroad, we now depend on trucks to haul everything,” she said. “It’s more expensive for a lot of reasons; you need more drivers, it’s more wear and tear on the roads.”
However, the Department of Transportation recently surveyed businesses in the northern part of the state to determine interest in using rail service.
“I don’t think the survey provided overwhelming persuasion that rail service would be profitable,” she said.
Meanwhile, work on permanent repairs for roads, bridges and culverts in the National Forest is underway, Mike Martin, district ranger for the Great Divide Ranger District, said.
Six towns are involved in the bulk of the construction, including Grandview, Marengo, Namakagon and Gordon, Morse and Drummond in Ashland and Bayfield counties.
Some jobs, including Wiscoe Road northeast of Lake Namakagon in Bayfield County, will require thousands of truckloads of sand and gravel fill to become usable again, Martin said. In addition, two roads will be permanently closed: Forest Road 383, known as Snake Trail, in central Bayfield County near the Ashland county line; and Forest Road 150, known as Hakala Road, located between Mellen and Drummond near St. Peter’s Dome in Bayfield County.
Martin said the difficulty of rebuilding and environmental concerns led the Forest Service to decommission the roads, returning the area to a more natural state for water flow and regrowth of the forest. Martin also said reconstruction has been planned to minimize affects on logging operations, tourism and residential travel, but Bayfield County Tourism Director Mary Motiff said a rapid recovery was critical for the county’s tourism industry.
“They are part of the infrastructure that makes this such a great place to recreate, as well as for residents to get back and forth,” she said.
Motiff said while the temporary closure of roads has been tolerable, long term or permanent closures are troubling.
“We’ve been able to weather the storm all right. But any time the word gets out that there are closures in an area, it gets out fast and people tend to go elsewhere. The faster we can get things fixed, the better,” she said.
Martin said that is the Forest Service’s priority as well.
“The good news is we are building sustainable roads into the future,” he said.