Twin Cities light rail planners hit snag with BNSF

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Minneapolis Blue Line light rail heads south from downtown Minneapolis to Mall of America.
Two photos, Steve Glischinski
MINNEAPOLIS – Plans to extend a light rail line into Minneapolis’ northwest suburbs along BNSF Railway right-of-way have hit a major obstacle: BNSF doesn’t want to discuss locating the line along its tracks. If built, eight of the 13 miles of the Bottineau Blue Line Extension project are planned to run along BNSF’s ex-Great Northern Monticello Subdivision. The line hosts a weekday local that originates at BNSF’s Northtown Yard.

“BNSF has long-standing passenger principles we use to evaluate passenger projects on our property. We believe the proposed Blue Line project is not consistent with these principles. It raises safety concerns and restricts our ability to serve future Minnesota customers,” BNSF Director of Public Affairs Amy McBeth tells Trains News Wire. “BNSF has raised these issues previously and after another recent review, we communicated to the Met Council that we are not discussing passenger rail in this corridor.”

In letter dated Jan. 9 from BNSF to the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council, which would build the line, BNSF Vice President and Senior General Council Richard E. Weicher says, “BNSF 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, 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 Monticello Subdivision.”

In 2015, the railroad was planning to build a connection between the Canadian Pacific mainline in suburban Crystal and the Monticello Subdivision, which would be used to divert CP trains away from the congested Northtown Yard area. When Hennepin County learned of BNSF’s plans, it purchased a piece of land needed to construct the connection and blocked the railroad’s plans after neighbors expressed concerns about increased rail traffic. Now the same county wants BNSF’s cooperation to build the LRT line.

“Of course this project has a little bit of hangover with the railroad,” Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat told the Coon Rapids (Minn.) Sun Post referring to the aborted connection. “I don’t know if there was a voice, a citizen voice in support of the railroad plan, but nevertheless the railroads took that rather personally … in the end this is not unexpected.” The governor and the state’s elected federal officials will need to ultimately step in and help the project move forward, Opat said.

Project Director Dan Soler told the Sun Post he was “not overly” surprised by BNSF’s response. “We know that BNSF has expressed their concern about working on passenger rail projects as we’ve worked with them over the last three years.” Soler said that the project office believes it has met BNSF’s passenger principles. “We’ve worked with them. We believe we’ve produced a design that can co-locate and co-exist with them,” he said.

The Bottineau Blue Line Extension would extend 13 miles from downtown Minneapolis to suburban Brooklyn Park, and is projected to carry 27,000 daily riders by 2030. The existing 12-mile Blue Line serves downtown Minneapolis from the Mall of America and Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport. With BNSF participation unknown, the timeline for the project is unclear. Last year the projected opening date was mid-2022.
BNSF's Monticello Local would see light rail run parallel as part of the proposed expansion.

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