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Will Minnesota elected officials work to acquire the Ford rail spur in St. Paul before it’s too late?

The right-of-way encompassed by the spur could be a critical trail and transit link in the capital city. But negotiations with Canadian Pacific to buy the land haven’t really started, and meanwhile the railroad has the option of selling it off piece by piece.

The latest case of railroad obstruction is the Canadian Pacific Rail spur, a five-mile obsolete right-of-way that runs through St. Paul’s Highland and West Seventh neighborhoods.
The latest case of railroad obstruction is the Canadian Pacific Rail spur, a five-mile obsolete right-of-way that runs through St. Paul’s Highland and West Seventh neighborhoods.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

As the Twin Cities get more ambitious about transit and trails, the region’s freight railroads have increasingly become obstacles to progress. Both the Green Line and Blue Line light rail extensions have been stymied by difficult railroad negotiations with the BNSF railroad. Meanwhile, ambitious projects like the Midtown Greenway Extension remain at an impasse thanks to a lack of action with Canadian Pacific.

The latest case of a railroad impasse is in St. Paul, where an obsolete rail spur runs five miles through the city’s Highland and West Seventh neighborhoods. The spur used to connect the Highland Ford factory into the rail network, but with that factory closed and no other customers along the way, any legitimate railroad purpose for the route vanished. Instead, it’s an ideal candidate for public use, either for a trail or a mix of recreation and transit.

But so far, there has been no movement to acquire the right-of-way from Canadian Pacific. For some community members, there’s a real worry that the land will be sold piece-by-piece instead. If that happens, St. Paul will miss its chance to create a key transportation link through a fast-growing part the city.

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Amazing potential

Most everyone agrees that the Canadian Pacific spur would make a great biking and walking trail. Unlike the existing Sam Morgan river path, which runs alongside a freeway, a Ford Spur greenway would be integrated directly with neighborhoods. It would connect key destinations like Highland Bridge, a well-used strip mall and shopping area, the Summit Brewery, Victoria Park, its neighboring charter school and the Schmidt Arts Lofts/Keg and Case food hall. Linking these places with an off-street trail would turn the abandoned tracks into one of the city’s most-used destinations.

City of St. Paul
A 2018 study done by the city of St. Paul makes the route’s potential clear. The closest analogy is the popular, groundbreaking Midtown Greenway in South Minneapolis, a national model for how transformational rail corridors can link urban neighborhoods.

But first, the government needs to own the land. The problem is that freight railroad regulations give little power to state or local government. Instead, railroad decisions are made by the Surface Transportation Board, a federally appointed group group that typically acquiesces to railroad demands. That leaves little room for maneuvering for cities and counties looking at putting projects together.

That’s a big reason why there’s been little progress.

“We have made no determinations on the spur; these are all parts of negotiations,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega. Ortega represents the district where the spur is located, and also chairs the county’s Regional Rail Authority, which would most likely be the entity that purchases the land.

“The spur is part of Riverview Corridor,” Ortega explained. “As we study it, the corridor now goes down West 7th, but parts of the spur might be needed.”

Ortega was referring to  the ambitious Riverview Corridor transit line, a high-speed streetcar that would run from the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport to Downtown St. Paul along West 7th Street. Critically, final Riverview route decisions have yet to be made, and one remaining option would use parts of the Canadian Pacific spur. The timeline for finalizing the route is still unclear, but is probably over a year away.

Because of that timeline, Ortega was unable to provide any news on acquiring the rail spur, but believes negotiations to purchase the right-of-way can’t begin until that decision is made. That said, Ortega remains confident that the situation will work out, that the county and railroad can come to an agreement and avoid breaking up the route.

“We have very good relationships with the railroads,” Ortega said, citing recent collaborations like the Union Depot and the forthcoming second daily Chicago-St. Paul Amtrak train. “I think Ramsey County is in a good position when the time comes to have a good talk about that, but that isn’t here today until we complete the Riverview study.”

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Different timelines

In the meantime, the land is for sale, and Canadian Pacific can do what it wants with the property no matter what public purpose might exist. The railroad might decide to sell off parts of the corridor piecemeal for a new warehouse or apartment complex. That would be a worst case scenario, as even a small break in the continuity of the route would ruin its transportation utility.

Without an official public conversation, county officials are only guessing at the amount that the land would cost. The estimates, based on similar negotiations around the Green Line extension, are around $40 million.

For those of you keeping score at home, that would be a lot, double the $20 million price tag for constructing the trail itself. It would effectively put the kibosh on dreams for a local trail.

“One problem is that it’s hard to get anyone the Surface Transportation Board or Canadian Pacific, or any of these huge entities involved to give you the truth on things, or even respond,” said Mathews Hollinshead, a member of the Highland District Council. Hollinshead is also a member of the Met Council’s Transportation Advisory Board, which allocates long-term federal funding in the region.

(Canadian Pacific declined to comment for this article.)

Ideally, Hollinshead would like to see at least some parts of the spur used for transit, possibly a branch of the Riverview route. But even without rail, he’d love to see a recreational trail.

A rendering of the Canadian Pacific Rail spur
City of St. Paul
A rendering of the Canadian Pacific Rail spur
“This is a golden opportunity to do a real transit-oriented development at Highland Bridge, and I brought this up ten years ago when the process for Highland Bridge was being developed,” Hollinshead explained. “Instead, there’s the danger it’ll be sold piecemeal. There are large property owners along the right-of-way who might be interested in expanding.”

Hollinshead points to the recent announcement by the University of St. Thomas that it is planning athletic facilities at the south section of Highland Bridge. According to The Villager, the Canadian Pacific parcel at the south end of the Highland Bridge site, likely the most valuable part of the corridor spur, might be part of the project.

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That’s why, with Hollinshead’s urging, the Highland District Council passed a resolution last week to request that the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority purchase the spur “in one complete property as soon as possible.”

Getting railroaded

The irony of the Ford Spur situation is that St. Paul owes much of its urban existence to railroads getting their way. At the turn of the 20th century, five of the top ten St. Paul employers were railroads, including the Great Northern, Omaha, and Northern Pacific. Without these massive, powerful companies, St. Paul would be a lot smaller.

Fast-forward 120 years, and the shoe is on the other foot. The county and city have little ability to acquire railroad land if the corporate leadership of the railroads decides it’s not in their interest.  That’s why Hollinshead is calling for Minnesota members of Congress to get involved. It might be a good time to influence a sale, given that Canadian Pacific is currently seeking Federal approval for a merger with Kansas City Southern. As recently pointed out in a Star Tribune op-ed, the merger would mean the loss of hundreds of downtown Minneapolis jobs as the Canadian Pacific national headquarters moves to Kansas City, so it comes at a cost to the Twin Cities.

Beyond the job losses, recent difficulties around transit and trail construction reveal how these kinds of transportation decisions have long-reaching impacts. For example, if the Kenilworth Corridor right-of-way had been purchased whole, there might not be so many problems emerging around the Green Line light rail extension.

If Ramsey County flubs their chance to acquire this land, it’ll surely create all kinds of preventable problems down the road. Let’s hope that officials and executives can make a deal on what will be an amazing public asset for generations to come.