A quiet street in northeast Minneapolis has been upended by BNSF Railway’s sudden plans to expand its tracks closer to houses there, simultaneously leveling a thick tree buffer that once shielded residents from the 92 trains — several carrying crude oil — that pass through every day.
It has grown even more unsettling for some residents who returned home last week to find surveyor stakes in their yards, signifying where the railroad says garages, fences and trees are encroaching on its property. The railroad wants those residents, located near NE. Washington Street and Lowry Avenue, to enter into long-term agreements such as leases if they want to keep using the land.
The abrupt development illustrates the power of the railroads, which are untethered from the local approval process that bogs down big projects. At least one homeowner is scrambling to obtain a land survey, but the railroad says it intends to press ahead to complete the project by year’s end.
“They aggressively told us this is their land, they could do what they want,” said Kaline Sandven, whose signs warning strangers to keep out didn’t stop a crew from uprooting her cherry trees on Thursday. “They don’t need permits, they don’t need environmental studies. They don’t need to study the impact of the devaluation of our homes.”
The new track is actually Plan B for BNSF, the nation’s second-largest freight carrier, to alleviate rail congestion in the area. An earlier plan to divert trains south in Crystal on a new rail link was thwarted by Hennepin County and the Legislature after an uproar about added traffic in Crystal, Robbinsdale and Theodore Wirth Park. The new track in Northeast will widen a bottleneck just south of BNSF’s massive Northtown Yard terminal, smoothing rail traffic jams there.
“It’s not new traffic in the area,” BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said of the new track. “It’s already moving through there on an existing track. Some of it will be now on the new track that will be built.”
The railroad says about seven adjacent properties are directly affected. Maps of the plan show it includes two 17-unit apartment buildings.
McBeth said if owners want to continue using the railroad land, BNSF could lease it to them “at a nominal or no fee,” or negotiate a sale. But it’s important to resolve for liability reasons and future home sales, she said.
“I understand that folks might have thought that the property line was different,” McBeth said. “But now that it has been surveyed by a professional surveyor, we need to work with them on those improvements that are on railroad property.”
Crews have been ripping up tall trees on a wooded slope that stood between the tracks and adjacent homes, where BNSF plans to build the new elevated track and a retaining wall. The trees had provided a visual and noise buffer from the constant train traffic. The new track will be 14 feet closer to property lines, leaving an 18-foot buffer between properties and the new, three-block retaining wall. The tracks will be closer, but 42 feet from the property lines.
“Am I going to be able to sell the house with a train sitting in your backyard where you can pick the nose of the conductor?” asked John Hennessy. Ironically, his home was moved there in the 1960s from south Minneapolis to make way for a never-built freeway on Hiawatha Avenue.
BNSF’s land claim may even extend to a nearby city street. A BNSF representative asked Hennessy to move his truck from a nearby cul-de-sac Thursday. They summoned Minneapolis police when he refused, Hennessy said, but an officer determined he was legally parked on a city street. The railroad then dispatched its own police, who said the car was on railroad property and threatened to tow it.
“They’re claiming that that’s railroad property and the city built the street on railroad property,” Hennessy said. “That cul-de-sac has been there ever since I moved in here … I’ve been here for 38 years.”
McBeth said she does not know whether BNSF’s claim extends to the street, but she had heard that a resident was trying to block construction access. “We don’t think that is productive or safe,” McBeth wrote in an e-mail.
Council Member Kevin Reich, who represents the area, said it remained inconclusive whether the railroad was claiming city property. But that would give the city standing to wade into the dispute, he said. “If they’re going on our property, that would trigger our ability to get in the matter as a property owner,” said Reich, adding that the city would not otherwise inject itself into a private property matter beyond providing background information.
Peter Dahlberg, a program manager in the freight rail office of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said such track expansions were uncommon until recently as rail congestion has worsened. But another recent metro area project, near the University of Minnesota, was less noticeable since tracks were kept within an existing rail yard, he said.
Reich said typically the railroads expand and modify tracks in their rail yards. “This one, they’re going deeper into the community than previously,” he said. “It’s much more impactful.”