Potential Rail Project in Crystal

As I mentioned in my last recap, during the city council work session last week the city staff alerted the council to a new rail project that has the potential to significantly affect Crystal.

Canadian Pacific (CP) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) are proposing to link their tracks which currently cross at about West Broadway and 52nd Avenue.

Location of proposed rail connector

This would allow trains moving east/west on the CP line to turn and go north/south on the BNSF line.  With this change we would see an increase of rail traffic through Crystal.  It is expected that both the frequency of trains and the length of the trains going through would increase significantly.

Some of the trains would be Bakken oil trains which can be 100 cars (or 4,000 feet- almost a mile) long.

One major concern is that a single 4,000 foot long heavy freight diverted from the CP to the BNSF would simultaneously close all four of the Crystal crossings – Douglas Dr (CP), West Broadway (CP), Corvallis (BNSF) and West Broadway (BNSF).

This would have an impact on our emergency services vehicles, basically cutting off the northern part of the city from the southern part of the city.

Of additional concern is the great latitude that railroads are given under long standing laws, as council member Olga Parsons explained in her recent meeting recap:

So, how can the train companies plan such a project without appealing to the local community for input and approval?  How can they entirely exclude our city council and staff?  The Federal Surface Transportation Board and the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration regulate the railroad industry.  Railroad companies are afforded many liberties, which include the ability to unilaterally carry out projects without any meaningful input from the local community.

The railroads have eminent domain authority, and this project would require the acquisition of at least three private businesses by the railroads.  Our city staff was only alerted to this proposed project because one of the private business owners contacted the city with some questions.

When this project was brought to our city staff’s attention late last year, they immediately brought it to the attention of MnDOT staff.  Since then, MnDOT staff met with the railroads but has been indifferent to the city’s concerns.

This morning council members from Crystal and some surrounding communities met with our legislative delegation to get an update on what’s going on in the legislature.  At this meeting Senator Ann Rest shared that she had a meeting with MnDOT this week about this project, and that MnDOT had noted that there is little they can do because railroads are regulated federally.

Details on where we go from here are unclear, but here’s what we do know now- the railroads will be required to complete an environmental impact statement as part of this proposal.  This process will include an opportunity for public input.  It’s important that residents of Crystal participate in this process.  I will post more information about the process as soon as I get it.

At our legislative meeting this morning we also discussed that if this project were to go forward we would need to address some of the railroad crossings in Crystal to ensure access to half the city is not cut off.  Our entire legislative delegation (Senator Rest and Reps Freiberg and Carlson) committed to working with us to attempt to secure funding to implement what’s called “grade separation” on some of our crossings.  That means either the road or train tracks would become elevated so traffic was not stopped by the trains.

This project could also have an impact on the proposed Blue Line or Bottineau light rail, though the impact is unclear at this point.

At this point I think it’s safe to say there are more things we don’t know than we do know, but I thought it was important to put this out there so people could be aware of what is going on.  There was discussion today about holding a community meeting with representatives from MnDOT to answer questions, but nothing is on the calendar quite yet.

I will post information as soon as I can, and if you have any questions, please let me know.

Update:  In response to a question on Nextdoor, here is an image of what the new route would look like if the connector was built.  Trains traveling east on the CP line (which runs east-west) could turn south on the BNSF line (which runs north-south).  Click the image to see full size.

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