A plan by two railroads to connect their tracks in Crystal could shift freight trains — including oil cars — south past Theodore Wirth Park and create major road traffic congestion in the northwest metro.
Canadian Pacific and BNSF's tracks now cross each other but are not connected at the proposed site at W. Broadway and 51st Place N. The tracks would be linked and several freight trains that now run west-to-east would be turned south to run alongside Bottineau Boulevard and just east of Wirth Park, one of the largest green areas in the Twin Cities. The tracks then cross Interstate 94 and enter downtown Minneapolis.
Crystal city officials say such a switch could potentially paralyze road traffic at five crossings in their city and Robbinsdale. They say they heard about the railroads' plans only after affected land and business owners along West Broadway called them.
"We feel that we are going to have a considerable change in Crystal and have absolutely no say in it," said Crystal Mayor Jim Adams.
Canadian Pacific owns the east-west tracks in question, and BNSF owns the north-south route.
A Canadian Pacific spokesman declined to comment. BNSF released a statement saying that the plan is one of several efforts to improve the efficiency of freight traffic, as well as that of the Northstar Commuter Rail and Amtrak, which run on separate but linked tracks.
"It will utilize existing infrastructure to reduce bottlenecks in train traffic," BNSF spokeswoman Amy McGrath said in a prepared statement. "At this point, we are still in planning stages. There are no final designs and there is no agreement between the two railroads."
Freight traffic is up across North America, thanks to an expanding economy, good grain harvests and oil booms in North Dakota and Canada. The two railroads send as many as 60 oil trains a week through Minnesota.
"We are very concerned about the possible connection," said Rick Pearson, Robbinsdale's community development coordinator. "The implications are pretty scary, but we are still waiting to find out from the railroads what their intentions are. … A mile-long train would block a lot of crossings."
Pearson said Robbinsdale sees very little rail traffic right now and cities have no say in what traffic there is, or could be. "As far we understand, there is no local oversight at all," Pearson said.
Railroad officials will have their first meeting with city staffs in Crystal and Robbinsdale Wednesday. Crystal officials also have alerted leaders in neighboring cities, as well as the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
Minneapolis parks spokeswoman Dawn Sommers said parks officials did not know about the plan until they were informed by the Star Tribune and could not comment.
Traffic jams ahead?
Railroad survey crews have already started work, including pounding stakes to map out the curved connection that will allow trains on the eastbound Canadian Pacific tracks to enter the southbound BNSF tracks.
Crystal community development director Patrick Peters said as many as two dozen freight trains travel the Canadian Pacific tracks each day to nearby Humboldt Yard. The north-south BNSF tracks now see only about two trains a day.
"We haven't gotten any real good information as far as what the railroad is doing," Peters said. "What we are concerned about is having a good portion of our city cut off from emergency services."
Waiting for eastbound trains is already a part of life in Crystal, residents say. Adding the track turn could further snarl traffic.
"The trains are 100 cars long — 4,000 feet," Peters said. "The curve they are making, they will need to go very, very slow to go through."
BNSF's spokeswoman said it will conduct field diagnostics with the Minnesota Department of Transportation this month to evaluate crossings where street traffic and trains intersect.
The Surface Transportation Board, a federal economic regulatory agency, also will review the project and provide a chance for public comment.
Peters said the new turn could exacerbate traffic backups and make it more difficult for police and fire to respond to emergency calls. And then "there is the noise and vibration, of course," he said. "This new freight traffic will be running cheek and jowl with residential neighborhoods in Crystal and Robbinsdale."
Firms primed to move
Construction of the proposed connection also could involve land acquisition. Owners of two businesses that border the tracks — Thomas Auto Body & Collision and North Suburban Towing — say their landlord has told them the railroad wants to buy the property and that they need to prepare to move.
Those business owners say they've seen railroad survey crews prepping the site.
North Suburban has 22 employees and operates a 100-car impound lot that serves nine local police departments. It's been at that location for 40 years.
"The railroad hasn't been very forthcoming," said Dave Oyaas, a North Suburban driver and dispatcher. The tow company is already working with the city to relocate now that its landlord has said it could have as little as 60 days and as long as two years to move.
Kyle Perleberg is part of the three-man crew working at Thomas Auto Body & Collision. Perleberg said long trains carrying freight and oil now sometimes come five minutes apart. He said he wonders if adding the turn would create more long waits.
Rep. Lyndon Carlson Sr., DFL-Crystal, said he wants to make sure the project is included in Gov. Mark Dayton's plan for rail upgrades. "The state can't really control the rerouting of a railroad; that's federal," he said. But "we can work on safety-related issues and also on railroad crossings … so people will continue to have access."