Some merchants along West Broadway — Robbinsdale's quaint main street — believe the near-northern suburb could be the next Minneapolis Uptown or Northeast, an emerging magnet for the hipster class.
But, they say, one important cog is missing: Light-rail transit. It's in the works but moving slowly. And that has raised the ire of some of its most-prominent supporters.
The Bottineau Blue Line LRT is expected to open in 2022, extending the Blue Line from downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park (including a stop in Robbinsdale). Planning for the $1.5 billion project has been humming along with little drama — unlike the controversial Southwest light-rail line, which prompted litigation from residents seeking to derail it.
Frustration about Bottineau's status boiled over at a recent project meeting.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, who represents the northern suburbs, says he's worried about Bottineau being "slowed down in favor of Southwest. All the demographics [in Bottineau's path] indicate a more transit-dependent population. There has been much more momentum and acceptance for the project."
Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde agreed. Both are frustrated that the Metropolitan Council, which is building both lines, is negotiating property, construction and shared-use agreements with BNSF Railway for Southwest but not for Bottineau. Southwest is supposed to begin service in 2021.
"I understand Southwest came first," Lunde said. "But lots of things that could be going on right now are being held up," including infrastructure and road improvements.
The rail negotiations are critical for each line to move forward. Without them, the Met Council cannot apply for about $1.6 billion in matching funds from the Federal Transit Administration.
While Southwest will overlap with BNSF freight rail for a short jog near downtown Minneapolis, Bottineau and BNSF trains will share a corridor for eight of the line's 13-mile route. Opat said talks aren't occurring simultaneously "because [BNSF] doesn't want to do it that way."
Bottineau project officials said last month that BNSF is still smarting from a 2015 Hennepin County land deal in Crystal that thwarted its plans to build a pivot point with Canadian Pacific Railway for trains transporting oil from North Dakota.
"It was like a Seinfeld episode," Lunde quipped. "They had grievances."
At a meeting last week, Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck said the regional planning body is "engaged in pretty heavy negotiations" with BNSF for the Southwest project. (Duininck has since resigned to take another job.)
In a written statement, a BNSF spokeswoman acknowledged that the freight hauler sometimes shares its rails with passenger service.
"We consider each proposal using our long-standing passenger principles, which require we protect our property and capacity to serve current and future freight customers," the statement said. "Each proposed project is complicated and requires significant review and evaluation."
These machinations are largely invisible to the Bottineau communities, which also include north Minneapolis and Golden Valley. Roughly 14 percent of the households along the line do not own a vehicle, according to U.S. Census figures. More than half of the households in parts of north Minneapolis lack cars. And about 13 percent of those living in Bottineau's overall service area live in poverty, compared with 10.2 percent statewide.
Some see opportunity if light rail arrives. "We're most excited about bringing new attention to Robbinsdale; it's all about access," said Jay Kalk, who owns the Minnesota Makers gift shop on West Broadway with his wife, Christa.
"I can't tell you how many times people have told us they can't get here [to work]," said Tina Suglia, co-owner of Nonna Rosa's Ristorante Italiano in Robbinsdale
Mayor Lunde said Brooklyn Park has big plans for high-density housing and an expanded corporate campus at the line's terminus, now home to Target Corp.'s northern campus and some 3,000 employees. Lunde says transit plays a meaningful role in those plans, and the discount retailer appears to agree.
"The LRT line would bring an affordable and convenient transportation option to the northwest suburbs as well as faster public transit connections to destinations like downtown Minneapolis and MSP airport," a Target spokeswoman said.
But not everyone is on board for Bottineau. Last year, Crystal's City Council took no action on a resolution to approve the project — an attempt to raise concerns about the lack of a pedestrian bridge over County Road 81 at Bass Lake Road, said Mayor Jim Adams. He said some council members oppose the "finance side" of light rail.
Adams says Crystal has not seen an uptick in interest from developers who want to build near the city's lone LRT station.
"We're almost a hiccup here in Crystal," he said.