BNSF Railway has ended talks with Met Council over the co-location of freight and light rail transit operations on its little-used Bottineau corridor through the northwest suburbs, claiming it could not “protect the long-term viability of service for current and future Minnesota freight customers.” And yet, the freight rail juggernaut seems willing to work with the same Met Council to add even more Northstar commuter trains to its congested and strategically critical freight main line between Minneapolis and St. Cloud. Go figure. You have one of the worst-patronized commuter rail operations in the U.S. working with a capacity-challenged freight railroad to add even more poorly performing commuter trains to its overloaded freight network. What could possibly go wrong? Is there something — anything — that can save these two organizations from themselves?
Well, there is. It is something that mercifully separates freight from transit on the Bottineau spur without actually eliminating freight service; something that returns critical Northstar train capacity to BNSF where BNSF appears to need it most; something that puts highway infrastructure money into the Northstar corridor to offset modest service cutbacks — all while extending commuter rail to St. Cloud. In essence, you trade Northstar for the Blue Line Extension in a way that leaves the glass at least half full for all sides rather than mostly empty for beleaguered Bottineau transit stakeholders.
Here’s how: Northstar service would move from six daily round trips from Big Lake to Minneapolis to three from St. Cloud — a.m., p.m. and midday — with station stops limited to Ramsey and Anoka. That cuts by half Northstar trains through BNSF’s congested Minneapolis terminal trackage where, according to a recent MNDOT study, it is most needed by the railroad, while adding trains to the straight, flat tracks between Big Lake and St. Cloud where there is ample capacity. The value created for BNSF by taking commuter train miles out of the Twin Cities should, therefore, offset the projected cost to upgrade St. Cloud area trackage for the new commuter service. And since overall Northstar train miles operated will not change, no additional cars or locomotives will be needed. That basically gets Northstar to St. Cloud for free — or close to it. Who would have thought?
For those facing service cutbacks, freed-up Northstar resources would fund express bus service to Minneapolis from outlying locales and an augmented city-fleet bus service for inner-ring Fridley and Coon Rapids riders. MnDOT and the Met Council, as part of the deal, would need to accelerate the long overdue conversion of Highways 10 in Ramsey and 252 in Brooklyn Center to limited access status and stop punishing commuters in that area for the misguided Northstar gambit. These measures will improve transit performance and flexibility on this particular corridor far more than is possible with fixed-route trains.
Meanwhile, back at Bottineau, it turns out that remaining freight shippers are all at, or west of, Osseo and, therefore, west of where the transit line would leave the BNSF right-of-way. A rail bridge over the Mississippi at Monticello that extends the freight spur five miles to the BNSF main line would allow trains out of Becker to serve these shippers without venturing onto the Bottineau transit corridor southeast of Osseo. Make that Monti bridge a dual use highway/rail affair, thereby removing the need for the planned Highway 24 Clearwater bridge bypass just upstream, and highway money can help ease the fiscal pain. That makes possible a less costly and truly unimpaired Bottineau Blue Line extension and, with it, the social and economic development goodwill taxpayers there are demanding — goodwill that cannot be matched by Northstar.
Making this happen will take more creative, big-picture negotiating chops than Met Council or BNSF operatives have shown to date. But they have bosses with chops. BNSF owner Warren Buffett would clearly grasp that running two 10-car freight trains per week through downtown Robbinsdale is not a higher and better use of pricey suburban real estate. And while Met Council seems to answer to no one hereabouts, it does answer to those who control its federal funds. Donald Trump, no stranger to money-losing ventures, does that. So, put these two to work and let’s make this deal. The northwest metro is watching — and tired of waiting.
Jerome Johnson is a retired transportation economist living in St. Paul. He is affiliated with CART, Citizen Advocates for Regional Transit.
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