The proposed Bottineau light rail line is jeopardized by a major railroad's objection to handing over its land for the project.
The Metropolitan Council on Friday pushed back the expected opening date for the line to 2024, after making little progress trying to open discussions with BNSF Railway. The council wants to run light rail alongside BNSF's freight track for about 60 percent of the 13-mile trip from Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park.
The council annually updates the project's timeline in filings with the Federal Transit Administration — the past date was 2022, which the council changed to "TBD" in presentations this year. As recently as 2012, project planners said it could be completed by 2018. But the regional agency's leader acknowledged that the situation may not improve, which would leave the project in limbo.
"They have been really clear about saying that this project doesn't meet their interests," said Met Council Chairwoman Alene Tchourumoff, referring to BNSF. "So it may be that the status won't change and they won't be interested in the future."
She added that these discussions generally take time, citing extended negotiations with railroads over the Southwest line. The council needs an agreement in order to apply for more than $700 million in federal dollars.
"It is concerning that we are not able to enter into negotiations with BNSF, especially because there's a significant component of the corridor that relies on co-location with the railroad," she added.
Despite the delay, the council said that the project's $1.5 billion budget has not changed.
"It does worry me," said Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, a major supporter of the line. Opat said he wishes the issue had been addressed during discussions with BNSF over Southwest, which centered on 1.4 miles of the railroad's land.
The railroad said in a statement Friday that it has raised concerns with the council for several years. Its vice president sent the council two letters earlier this year, stating their objection.
"After reviewing the current plans earlier this year we communicated to Met Council we are not proceeding with any discussion of passenger rail in this corridor," company spokeswoman Amy McBeth said in a statement.
"We believe the light rail project, which as proposed currently requires using BNSF property, is inconsistent with our passenger principles. It would restrict our ability to serve future Minnesota customers."
The BNSF land the Met Council needs for the project extends from Theodore Wirth Park in Golden Valley to Brooklyn Park. Project planners at Hennepin County considered alternatives in 2012 and earlier that would have required less BNSF land by running the line on local streets through north Minneapolis, but they were ultimately rejected.
"I know their objections have been consistent. And I also know they are without any obvious logic," Opat said. "It's a little-used corridor for them. And there's plenty of room to co-locate light rail and freight rail, as they've done around the country."
BNSF had planned to increase freight traffic into the corridor several years ago by routing Canadian Pacific trains there from Crystal, rather than across the river, to alleviate congestion on the rails. But Hennepin County scuttled the plan by buying the land the railroad needed to reroute the trains.
Opat said he hopes businesses and federal officials, like the state's U.S. senators, could apply pressure on the railroad to negotiate.
"All these cities [along the line] are ready. We've been planning for years," he said. "It serves an underserved population. The area along the corridor is ripe for redevelopment. We just need some help."