The Joint Finance Committee hears from the head of Wisconsin's Railroad Agency about his budget.

Railroad Commissioner Rodney Kreunen says his agency is responsible for, among other things, railroad safety, including over 4,000 railroad crossings in the state.

"The costs of signalization due to technology and inflation have risen dramatically. We're not here to ask you for any more money. We're not going to do that. It's not our approach."

The 70-year-old, who is commonly known as "Uncle Rodney," says the major railroad industry has become more cooperative in helping to pay for some of the crossing upgrades, and he's good at making the best with what is currently available.

"We have a used signal program we're very proud of, which started when Tommy (Thompson, former Governor) was still here. He called it Rodney's Railroad Salvage Yard."

Kreunen also worries about train accidents. He says due to more traffic, there are more blockages on the rails.

"The railroad traffic is up dramatically. Better than 50% on ton miles. Many of the railroads don't recognize it but we're close to capacity."

Our paper industry and forest products rely on the railroads, but Kreunen is concerned about Wisconsin becoming a 'pass through.'

"But ah, it's a changing industry. We need it. Wisconsin is not going to survive without it."

Wisconsin's railroad agency is the smallest state agency, with just five full time positions plus the Commissioner. The cost to run the office is roughly $550,000 a year, funded by an assessment of up to 1.85% on the railroads.

NOTE: Kreunen was appointed to his position by Governor Tommy Thompson in 1996. Kreunen's six-year term has since expired, but until the governor appoints a successor, Kreunen will stay on the $70,500-a-year gig.

AUDIO: Jackie Johnson report (1:47 MP3)

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