A new state law limiting railroads' ability to take Hennepin County property and a last-minute $1.8 million land grab by the county now stand in the way of two railroads' plan to connect tracks in Crystal and turn mile-long oil and freight trains south into Minneapolis along Theodore Wirth Park.
Crystal city leaders, who first heard of the proposed connection last winter and rallied opposition, say they are hopeful the railroads will back off. Canadian Pacific wanted to link its busy east-west line with BNSF's sleepy north-south track to ease congestion, including rerouting Bakken oil field trains through Minneapolis.
"My sense is there are a lot of roadblocks for them to overcome. The ball is in their court," said Crystal City Council Member Olga Parsons. "I am very optimistic we have done enough to prevent this from happening, but they don't have to let us know their plan."
This spring, Hennepin County rushed in and bought the land the railroads needed to make the connection at 5170 W. Broadway. The owner sold it willingly to the county.
Then city, county and state leaders pushed through a law reining in the railroads' eminent domain authority. Railroads cannot take property from Hennepin County if county leaders determine it would be detrimental to public safety or impede access of first responders.
Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, was chief author of the original bill that retroactively went into effect on March 2.
In a written statement Friday, BNSF didn't say whether it had abandoned efforts to build the Crystal connection. "BNSF continues to look at all options to expand our capacity and reduce freight congestion in the metro area," spokeswoman Amy McBeth said in the statement. "When freight traffic moves more efficiently, impact of that traffic in local communities is reduced. The project in Crystal would result in fewer blocked crossings in other areas, including north Minneapolis and Coon Rapids and many others."
BNSF is investing $326 million in maintenance and expansion projects in Minnesota to improve safety and efficiency, McBeth said.
Canadian Pacific declined to comment.
'Everyone feels powerless'
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, who represents the northern Twin Cities suburbs, including Crystal and Robbinsdale, said support from other elected officials was overwhelming.
"The railroads have such power. Everyone feels powerless. If the railroads are exercising their freedom against the wishes of the public, everyone in elected office is sympathetic to try and do something about that," Opat said.
Still, Opat said it was a close call. Railroads don't need local approval to proceed with a project. They are governed by the federal Surface Transportation Board, which can order varying levels of environmental review.
Last winter, affected landowners called Crystal city officials as railroad surveyors were already staking out the new connection on private property. Leaders and residents feared that mile-long freight trains slowing to 25 miles an hour to make the turn could block five intersections at one time, paralyzing traffic.
Crystal Mayor Jim Adams said that would divide the city. It would also make it difficult for police and firefighters to traverse the city in emergencies, he said.
"The concerns went rocketing," Opat said. "It would have created incredible traffic delays in Crystal and Robbinsdale.
"Tanker cars have derailed around the country and created havoc," he said.
There were also concerns that if the freight connection was made, it could have complicated plans for the Southwest LRT, which will parallel several miles of the BNSF track.
At the time, Canadian Pacific's line carried as many as two dozen freight and oil trains a day, while the BNSF line, which runs along Bottineau Boulevard, served two short trains a day.
Railroad officials met with city leaders once this spring, but it did little to quell concerns.
Still not a definite victory
John Sutter, Crystal's community development director, cautioned against opponents of the connection claiming a victory.
"We don't know that we've won. Unlike the city, the railroad doesn't have to show its hand. We don't know what they are planning," he said.
The land purchased by the county is currently occupied by a body shop and a towing company. They pay rent to the county.
Thomas Bohnert, owner of Thomas Auto Body in Crystal, said he has a nine-year lease and he's happy to stay put.
"I am surprised the county came in and bought it," Bohnert said. "I think it's a good outcome for me."
Opat said the land is now technically considered surplus by the county.
"I certainly don't support holding it indefinitely. At some point it would be nice to see it redeveloped," Opat said. "Until then it is serving a great purpose in preserving public safety."