Hennepin County jumped in Tuesday to try to thwart two railroad giants from rerouting freight and oil trains through Crystal into the heart of Minneapolis.
The County Board directed its staff to buy the central chunk of property where the railroads want to build a connector for trains hauling oil from North Dakota's Bakken fields.
North Suburban Towing Inc. and Thomas Auto Body & Collision currently rent and operate businesses on the site at 5170 W. Broadway in Crystal and had been told to prepare to move. Now they might not have to.
County Board Member Mike Opat, who represents the area, said staffers are in exclusive negotiations with the property owner. "I'm confident that we will be able to" buy it, Opat said.
BNSF and Canadian Pacific tracks now cross each other in Crystal, but do not connect. With a connector, the trains would slow to 25 miles per hour to turn, a maneuver that could paralyze five intersections in Crystal and Robbinsdale at once. The mile-long trains would continue along Theodore Wirth Park and across Nicollet Island on the Mississippi River, at the edge of downtown Minneapolis.
Golden Valley, New Hope and Plymouth also would see more traffic and heavier trains if the connector is built.
The county's goal in acquiring the land would be to prevent the railroads from using their substantial federal powers to take property. Opat said he believes the county's purpose in acquiring the property — public safety — would supersede the railroads' authority.
But a legal fight is possible, perhaps probable. Opat said the county's attorneys are ready.
"We're going to put the full weight of the county behind ensuring" the railroads can't acquire the land for the connector, he said.
'It could very well happen'
The County Board voted unanimously at Tuesday's closed-door session to move to acquire the land after property owners voiced concerns.
About 200 residents attended a public meeting Saturday in Crystal to express opposition to increasing freight traffic, and the substantial noise and vibrations that could result from more trains rumbling through highly populated areas, Opat said.
Jon Horkey, co-owner of the property sought by the county, confirmed the talks Tuesday and said the price being discussed is more than $1 million and less than $2 million. "It could very well happen," he said. "If it's a clean deal, we'll take it."
Horkey said he has no "real feelings one way or the other" regarding the freight trains, but that he's in his mid-70s and ready to sell.
The owners of North Suburban, which operates a 100-car impound lot serving nine police departments, declined to comment. The company has been at that location for 40 years.
Horkey said if the county's purchase goes through, the two businesses at 5170 W. Broadway would continue to operate.
Railroad survey crews have been out prepping the site for the connector and property owners have said they were told to prepare to move.
BNSF said Tuesday in a prepared statement, "We have been negotiating with the private landowner to purchase the property for this planned project that would more efficiently move trains already in the metro area through the region." Canadian Pacific declined to comment.
The potential for more heavy freight traffic as the result of a new connector had caused Twin Cities businessman Daniel Justesen to rethink a multimillion-dollar business deal for the Bryn Mawr Brewing Co. and taproom along Bassett Creek. On Tuesday, he said of the proposed County Board purchase: "That sounds like a fabulously positive development, should they be able to pull it off. If they can keep that a nice quiet railroad on that track, this moves me forward on my business," he said. "You've certainly brightened my day."
Dayton has had questions
Last month, Gov. Mark Dayton sent a letter to the federal Surface Transportation Board requesting that the railroads be required to conduct a full environmental review of their plans.
"This traffic would travel through downtown Minneapolis and residential communities that have not previously been exposed to such traffic," he wrote.
Canadian Pacific owns the east-west tracks in question, and BNSF owns the north-south route. Canadian Pacific's line carries as many as two dozen freight and oil trains a day, while the BNSF line, which runs along Bottineau Boulevard, serves only two short trains a day.
Freight traffic is up across North America because of plentiful grain harvests and North Dakota oil. The two railroads send up to 60 oil trains a week through Minnesota.