Negotiations over whether the proposed $1.5 billion Bottineau Blue Line light-rail project will share most of its corridor with freight trains appear to have stalled.
The 13-mile Blue Line extension would link downtown Minneapolis with Brooklyn Park, operating along 8 miles of right of way owned by BNSF Railway Co. The Metropolitan Council, which is overseeing the project, must negotiate with the Texas-based rail giant to share the alignment north of Minneapolis.
But in a Jan. 9 letter, BNSF Vice President and Senior General Counsel Richard Weicher said the company “is not prepared to proceed with any discussion of passenger rail in this corridor at this time.”
He added: “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 corridor.
Met Council Chairwoman Alene Tchourumoff said in a statement that BNSF’s stand is “another step in the negotiating process. We take BNSF’s concerns seriously, and we’re confident we can work together with them to address their concerns.”
Tchourumoff, who was in Fort Worth, Texas, on Friday to meet with BNSF, said the Bottineau project is “an important one to our region, and we’re looking forward to advancing it with all our partners.”
BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said Friday the company uses “long-standing passenger principles” to evaluate passenger rail projects on its property. She said the Bottineau line “raises safety concerns and restricts our ability to serve future Minnesota customers.”
The principles employed by BNSF state the railroad’s service cannot be degraded or the business held liable by partnering with a commuter rail operation, nor can the company incur a higher tax burden as a result.
In addition, BNSF holds that it must be compensated for the costs of accommodating commuter service, and any capital investment is “the responsibility of the public.”
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat said Friday that he wasn’t surprised by BNSF’s recent salvo.
“I view this as just the beginning of negotiations, which are always more difficult with railroads than you’d like,” he said.
But Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, characterized the stalled talks between the Met Council and BNSF as “pretty serious. It demonstrates to me that [the Met Council] put the cart before the horse when they chose this route.
“It’s as though they looked at a map and chose a route before realizing they’d have to negotiate with the people it affects,” said Torkelson, who heads the House Transportation Finance Committee.
McBeth said BNSF had raised these issues before. “After another recent review, we communicated to Met Council that we are not discussing passenger rail in this corridor,” she said.
Last year, negotiations with BNSF over a mile-long stretch on the proposed Southwest light-rail route, between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, resulted in the Met Council agreeing to erect a $20 million crash-protection wall to separate freight and light-rail trains.
It’s unclear whether BNSF might require a similar wall for the Bottineau Blue Line project, should negotiations get that far.