Elected officials in the northwest suburbs want to move forward with the Bottineau Blue Line Light Rail Transit Extension project regardless of the status or future of the Southwest Green Line Extension project.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat and Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde said at a Blue Line Corridor Management Committee meeting June 15 that they are tired of the Southwest Green Line extension project holding up the Blue Line Extension, and they need to do what is in their power to advance the Bottineau project as quickly as possible.
While several barriers to the project’s completion have been passed, some funding sources for the Bottineau project remain uncertain, and the schedule for completion has been pushed back.
Previous projections for the project’s revenue service opening date were for late 2021, and now the Bottineau Project opening date projection has been pushed back to mid-2022. The project office plans to apply for a federal grant in May 2018 rather than September 2017, as was previously scheduled.
The recent dissolution of the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which allowed Hennepin County to raise its sales tax by a quarter-cent to a total half-cent effective Oct. 1, 2017, will provide state and county shares of funding for both the Southwest and Bottineau lines. The move comes after a Republican-controlled Minnesota Legislature refused to provide state funding for either line during the 2017 session.
And while local funding has been committed to both projects, questions of federal transit funding under President Trump remain unanswered. The project would need to be identified in the federal budget before the Federal Transit Administration would accept an application for a full funding grant agreement.
That said, the Southwest and Bottineau Light Rail projects are two of five projects that are nationally recognized on the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts report, according to Dan Soler, Blue Line project director.
Among other issues slowing the Bottineau Line’s progress is negotiations with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.
Unfinished freight rail negotiations with BNSF have slowed the progress of both Bottineau and Southwest Light Rail projects, which plan to share land owned by BNSF on their routes. BNSF has engaged in negotiations regarding the Southwest project, but has been unwilling to discuss the Blue Line Extension until Southwest negotiations are finished, according to Soler.
“It’s never a real love affair between the public sector and railroads,” Soler said.
Approximately eight miles of the Bottineau Line are planned to be built on land owned by BNSF, along with approximately one and a half miles of the Southwest Line.
“We were making some progress with the railroad. We were making some headway with them, but BNSF has got a lot of issues in the state of Minnesota, that is part of their overall program,” Soler said. “And so what they’re saying to us here is, as far as it goes with LRT projects, they’ve got to get completed with the work on the Southwest LRT project.”
The Bottineau project office is open to the idea of negotiating the Bottineau and Southwest agreements concurrently, with the county entering discussions with BNSF engineers, but BNSF has not expressed an interest in discussing the Bottineau Line, Soler said.
Discussions with the railroad on the Southwest project began as long as three to four years ago, according to Soler.
The section of BNSF-owned land that the Bottineau Line would share with the railroad is referred to as the Monticello Spur.
“They’re willing to talk on Southwest but not on the Monticello Spur, which, we have $1.5 billion wrapped up in this project, and so we need to start talking about the Monticello Spur because it holds everything else up,” said Mike Opat, district 1 county commissioner representing Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Crystal, New Hope, Osseo and Robbinsdale.
“That’s why I think to negotiate sequentially is a terrible idea, because … it sends the message that we think one project’s more important than the other, and I don’t think that,” Opat said.
In terms of priority in the region, the Southwest Line is closer to completion than and the Bottineau Line, Soler said.
Past issues with BNSF
There is some concern that BNSF may hold a grudge against Hennepin County after the county blocked BNSF and its north-south rail system from connecting with the Canadian Pacific, east-west line in Crystal near County Road 81 in 2015.
The two railroads had intentions of connecting their lines so that oil and freight trains on the busier Canadian Pacific line could be redirected south through Robbinsdale, Golden Valley and ultimately to Minneapolis on the less busy BNSF line.
“They didn’t tell anybody that. So, Crystal sees them staking the ground. We all go into action saying we can’t have that. We can’t have the intersections blocked, the ambulance traffic, and the fire,” Opat said.
Local officials also opposed the plan.
While local officials typically have little power to halt such a railroad project, in this case, the railroad would have needed to purchase a piece of property at 5170 West Broadway. However, the county purchased it before the railroad had the opportunity and refused to sell it to the railroad, effectively ending plans for a connection.
“Frankly, part of our worry here is that BNSF is still kind of smarting a little bit over the fact that they wanted to … make the connection [with Canadian Pacific] in Crystal, and that didn’t move forward, which, you know, by all intents and purposes would have been a pretty problematic piece,” Soler said.
“They still have, you know, hurt feelings if you will, about that issue, so we’ve got some work to do with them, and it’s going to take some time,” Soler added.
‘We’re done waiting’
Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde said Brooklyn Park will take action to move the Bottineau project forward.
“We’re not going to sit back anymore,” he said.
Delays on the Bottineau project, which includes reconstruction of West Broadway along the line, impact Brooklyn Park beyond transportation issues, Lunde said.
“I always hear ‘Southwest, Southwest,’ and I understand it from a big picture, but my concern is that … every time there is a delay, the city delays other things,” he said, citing a water main break on West Broadway the week of the meeting.
“We have residents, we have business owners who are lining up waiting because they’re in limbo,” Lunde said.
The line also effects poverty levels, as some people in Brooklyn Park struggle to commute to high-paying jobs, Lunde said. “Every year that things get delayed, that’s just one more year of people who don’t have access to opportunity,” he said.
Lunde said Brooklyn Park will continue to support the county and Met Council, but will launch its own lobbying efforts to drive public opinion and influence future gubernatorial candidates to support the project, regardless of what happens to Southwest. Lunde said he does not accept the position that negotiations with BNSF need to finish with Southwest before they start for Bottineau.
“One more lawsuit hits Southwest, then suddenly my city is impacted by things that we have no control over, and I think that we are done being there,” Lunde said.
“I understand Southwest needs to be built. I understand the system, but our city is waiting, and we’re done waiting,” Lunde added.
Opat said he agreed with Lunde, and that his primary concerns were the Met Council’s negotiations with BNSF. The Met Council should not take the position that Southwest negotiations should conclude before Bottineau negotiations begin, he said.
“Right now, clearly the decision has been made to negotiate in complete … with Southwest because that’s the way the railroad wanted it, and we’ll wait until another day to negotiate around the Blue Line,” Opat said. “And with everything in my being, I oppose that strategy.
“Waiting is what we’ve become accustomed to up here, and I’m tired of waiting,” Opat continued. “Everything we do up here ends up ‘Oh, just hang on and be patient, trust us, we’ll get to it,’” he said.
“It’s time to press on, but we should press on with some attitude for this project, because otherwise, I really think we could be sitting here another three or four years and having the same discussion,” Opat added.