What lawsuits from neighbors, attacks from Republican legislators and draconian budget proposals by President Trump couldn’t accomplish, the BNSF railroad just might. That is: kill a Twin Cities light rail line.
The railroad, which holds the keys to whether the Bottineau light rail project can be built, has again said it has no interest in sharing its rail corridor with light rail. In a letter received by the Met Council this week, BNSF said it it is “not prepared to proceed with any discussion of passenger rail in this corridor at this time.”
“As we explained in discussions some time ago, and again as recently as February, we do not believe the Blue Line light rail project would be consistent with our passenger principles or protect the long-term viability of freight service” along the right of way, wrote BNSF Vice President and Senior General Manager -Regulatory Richard E. Weicher.
It is a repeat of a letter sent in January and comes despite a visit to BNSF headquarters by Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff in February. Earlier this month Tchourumoff had said the railroad had agreed during that meeting to take another look at project plans. She expressed some optimism that the more-detailed design would convince the railroad to re-enter talks to assure that the two rail services could coexist in what BNSF calls it Monticello Subdivision.
“I was disappointed to receive this response again without any further details on how the BLRT design is inconsistent with their passenger principals,” Tchourumoff wrote Thursday in an email to mayors along the line.
She said in the email that she would be discussing the letter with Hennepin County commissioners who, after the dissolution of the Counties Transit Improvement Board last summer, is the sole non-federal funder of the Bottineau project, a $1.536 billion, 13.5-mile extension of the existing Blue Line.
“In the meantime, staff are continuing to advance the project,” she wrote of the hoped for extension that would run from Target Field Station to Brooklyn Park and include stations in Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal and Brooklyn Park.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat’s District 1 covers much of the territory served by the line. He too expressed disappointment at the letter from BNSF. “This is the second time now we’ve tried to engage them and supply them with information that we think shows operation of LRT and freight in that corridor is both workable and within their passenger rail principals,” Opat said. “This response is disappointing because they didn’t engage with questions. It was a very short letter.
“It’s not astonishing given how railroads operate, so we’ll just keep trying to engage them and we’ll seek some advocates to help us and we’ll do the best we can,” he said. “It’s too important a project to stop with that letter.”
The brave face presented in Tchourumoff’s email cannot cover up the fact that without BNSF, there is no project. Eight miles of the 13.5-mile route relies on the right of way, starting with where the proposed route ducks under Olson Highway on the border between Golden Valley and Minneapolis and ending just south of Brooklyn Boulevard.
The project had anticipated moving BNSF tracks to one side of the 100-foot-wide corridor and putting light rail’s dual tracks on the other edge. It also was to have paid to move Xcel Energy electrical lines to accommodate the rail realignment. Five stations would also have used right of way.
While the railroad made significant demands of the Met Council to get cooperation on SWLRT, most significantly (and expensively), a one-mile long concrete wall to separate freight rail tracks from light rail tracks, at least it didn’t act to block the project. It is another railroad — the TC&W — that is challenging the latest plan to push forward on Southwest. While Hennepin County owns the rights-of-way needed, there are other requirements and federal approvals needed for it to get TC&W’s cooperation.
But while BNSF is not the problem on Southwest, it apparently continues to believe it can’t live with light rail in the right of way on Bottineau. “BNSF Railway is a freight railroad serving businesses and producers across Minnesota,” wrote railroad spokesperson Amy McBeth. “We evaluate on a case-by-case basis each project for passenger service that would be hosted on our property. We came to an agreement with Met Council on SWLRT last year.
“After reviewing the current plans for the Blue Line light rail project, BNSF communicated to Met Council this week that we are not proceeding with any discussion of passenger rail in this corridor,” McBeth wrote. “As we explained in discussions some time ago and said again this week, we believe the Blue Line light rail project is inconsistent with our passenger principles. It would restrict our ability to serve future Minnesota customers.”
Among those passenger principles is that right-of-way sharing cannot degrade the company’s freight service; it must also not absorb any liability; and must be compensated for any costs. While the latter two demands are being met on SWLRT, the issues of safety and impacts on freight service are different on Bottineau. Only a mile of shared right of way is at stake on Southwest — versus eight on Bottineau.
“The alignment has us in that corridor so we certainly do need to, at some point, reach an agreement with them,” Opat said.
During its most recent meeting of the Bottineau Corridor Management Committee, project staff leaders tried to be optimistic, but they were clear about the significance of the BNSF negotiations. Deals with railroads are among the most significant “third-party agreements” that must be signed before the Met Council can even ask the federal government for a funding agreement that would cover up to 49 percent of the cost.
Project staff had hoped to apply for that agreement by the end of this year and begin construction of the track and 11 stations in 2019.
“So the question I get asked second most — after what is going on with BNSF — is, what’s the schedule with the project,” Bottineau project director Dan Soler told the group of state and local elected officials who make up the management committee. “We like to make schedules of course and we like to stay on schedule. But one of the hardest things we’ve got with this particular project is how to make a schedule when we don’t have total control over what an activity might be.
“The good news…through some back and forth and the chair’s ability to get involved with BNSF, they’ve agreed to take a look at the plans as prepared by the project office to determine where and how and if those plans meet their passenger principles,” Soler said. “We believe we’ve addressed what needs to be in place for a shared corridor.
After that April 12 meeting, Tchourumoff said she thought her Ft. Worth meetings were productive though she said she wouldn’t characterize talks as “active negotiations.”
“They’re still deciding whether they want to negotiate on the project,” she said. “I was trying to explain to them that we believe the project design has evolved since we started. The last time we engaged with BNSF, we were at a lower percent of design. Since we’ve been through Southwest and what we’ve learned of the commuter principals, we feel like we can meet those. We asked them for the opportunity to to meet those principals.”