Is There a Way to get Bottineau LRT Back On Track?

After $125 million and over a decade of planning, Bottineau, the Twin Cities final LRT project, is embroiled in a stalemate that could be its undoing. Is there a way to get it back on-line?

[Editor’s Note: At press time the pivot in Bottineau LRT plans this story telegraphed took place, when Hennepin County and the Met Council announced on August 3 their intention to abandon attempts to bring BNSF Railway to the table to negotiate co-location of LRT on its Monticello corridor. As you will read later in this article, this portends a multi-year process of finding an alternative route for the line, particularly through North Minneapolis, the most complex part to reroute.]

It seemed like a steady green signal.

The Twin Cities fourth and final light rail project had what most of its predecessor lines lacked: consensus. Communities and elected officials along the way clamored for it. Area businesses wanted connectivity to lineside jobs. Development opportunities abounded. The route was uncomplicated and without obvious impediments. And then it went off the rails.

Let’s briefly go back to the beginning.

After decades of study and measurement, the Metropolitan Council decided four local corridors justified LRT. Hiawatha (the Blue Line) came first, and though it was a struggle to tunnel under the airport, the line was built with only modest opposition, mostly using public land. It was wildly successful.

Then came University (the Green Line), which proved more difficult. Lawsuits from Minnesota Public Radio and the University of Minnesota delayed the project, as did objections about both disruption to and gentrification of impoverished parts of University Avenue. Eventually, though, the Green Line also blew the doors off ridership projections.

Southwest LRT (Green Line extension) came next and struggled under the weight of environmental lawsuits from residents around Minneapolis’ lakes, corporate indifference along its west suburban route, and opposition from a small adjacent railroad whose demands added hundreds of millions to the cost. Still, it’s now under construction and will open in 2022 or 2023.

The Bottineau LRT from downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park looked easy, by comparison. The line runs west along Olson Highway (Hwy. 55), turns north at the Golden Valley border through Wirth Park and emerges in Robbinsdale to parallel West Broadway Avenue and County Hwy. 81 (Bottineau Blvd.).

More than half the 13-mile line was designed to operate on an existing BNSF Railway freight line known as the Monticello Subdivision. BNSF, born of James J. Hill’s lines but now based in Fort Worth, Texas, operates the line from Minneapolis as far as the Xcel nuclear plant in Monticello. (The line once continued to Moorhead, where it connected with Great Northern’s mainline to Seattle.) It hosts one daily freight train, has two industrial customers, and north of St. Michael is little used, say local insiders. 

The Metropolitan Council planned to pay BNSF to “co-locate” two LRT tracks alongside BNSF’s one. Hennepin County, which will fund the line, says the BNSF right-of-way is sufficiently wide to safely carry two double-tracked railroads, giving BNSF plenty of room to double its current capacity. Those assumptions drove a decade of planning and $125 million in public investment.

The people want this to happen. We need to find someone to do something about it.
Robbinsdale Mayor Regan Murphy

But a couple years ago, BNSF seemed to lose interest in the millions of dollars in lease revenue it would generate from the Bottineau LRT.

“It was a surprise to us, based on [BNSF’s] utilization of that line, that we were not able to come to an agreement,” says Dan Soler, Hennepin County’s senior program administrator for rail projects.

BNSF previously had a productive relationship with the Met Council on regional transit. It hosts/operates the Northstar commuter rail from Minneapolis to Big Lake on its mainline to Fargo and recently agreed to co-location of Southwest LRT in portions of its Linden Yard near downtown Minneapolis.

So BNSF’s posture is befuddling. “There is not much precedent for a railroad not cooperating,” with a thoughtfully planned municipal transit project, says William Vantuono, longtime editor in chief of Railway Age, an influential industry trade magazine.

It has been at least two years since BNSF returned Bottineau’s phone calls, if you will. There are theories about why, but the reality is that it is BNSF’s railroad, and federal law gives states and municipalities no power of eminent domain over them. Thus a stalemate—and most stakeholders agree that an inflection point is at hand.

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“The people want this to happen,” says Robbinsdale Mayor Regan Murphy. “We need to find someone to do something about it.”

Metro Blue line map
METRO Blue Line Extension (Bottineau LRT)

Bottineau basics

Rail planning in the Bottineau corridor goes back to the late 1990s, says Hennepin County commissioner Mike Opat, the key elected official who has championed for the project for more than two decades. He recalls BNSF pulling a municipally arranged demonstration train to Robbinsdale to showcase rail service in the corridor. “There was never any pushback back then,” Opat says. “The debate about the route was not about the rail corridor.”

Serious route analysis for Bottineau began in 2008. Dozens of options were considered, but all of them ended up on the Monticello Sub at some point. The conflict was over how and where to serve north Minneapolis. At the time, and many would argue still today, North Minneapolis struggled with a lack of transit infrastructure. But the simplest way to reach BNSF’s line was to bypass the North Side almost entirely, running LRT west along Hwy. 55 to the city’s western border by Wirth Park.

The alternative was using Penn Avenue to Lowry Avenue to West Broadway, which becomes Bottineau Boulevard in Robbinsdale. But many iterations of this route were abandoned due to political objections. “They were screened out fairly early,” says Hennepin County’s rail guru Dan Soler. Running the line along local streets would require disruptive construction and removal of homes. “It was 120 to 140 residences, which was problematic.”

“It isn’t intuitive that you would circumvent north Minneapolis,” adds Opat, who says a study ensued which indicated residents preferred the BNSF routing with connector buses to the North Side from a station at Golden Valley Road. 

The street-running also slowed travel times to Brooklyn Park. “It was not time-competitive for suburban riders,” says retired Metro Transit planner Aaron Isaacs. Uncompetitive travel times (compared to existing bus modes) would jeopardize an expected 50 percent federal funding match.

There is no more transit-underserved area than this corridor.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat

“There wasn’t a good second choice” to the BNSF line, says Hennepin County Commissioner Irene Fernando, who represents North Minneapolis on the county board.

The Bottineau corridor is set to run 13 miles from Target Field Station in downtown Minneapolis to a terminal near Target’s Brooklyn Park campus at the intersection of U.S. 169 and Hwy. 610. There will be stops (see route map, above) in Minneapolis along Highway 55, and at Wirth Park, Golden Valley Road, downtown Robbinsdale, Crystal, and five stations in Brooklyn Park.

When the line turns north off Hwy. 55, it runs 7-plus miles on the BNSF right-of-way before moving onto the median of Hwy. 81 in Brooklyn Park. Golden Valley hopes the line will solidify its status as a place to locate jobs, Robbinsdale sees its modest downtown blossoming into a regional destination, while commercial and residential development is anticipated at a series of forlorn intersections to the northwest. North Hennepin Community College and Target’s northern campus are major ridership magnets.

“Our biggest asset is our downtown,” says Robbinsdale’s Murphy. “We would like some housing. We want the streets activated with services and retail.”

“We see this line as critical to gaining investment that we need,” says Jay Strobel, city manager for Brooklyn Park, which has 1,200 acres to be developed near the line’s north end at Target’s campus, which currently is home to six buildings with more than a million square feet of office space.

“Most of our planning,” Strobel says, “counts on LRT as a development spark [on the north end], while on the south end we expect a lot of job creation.” He believes the campus employed as many as 4,000 people prior to the pandemic.

The Bottineau project also stands in contrast to Southwest LRT: It serves a solidly blue-collar, transit-dependent region, rather than a predominantly white-collar, car-owning area. So it’s not just a mobility play for the region, it’s an equity play.

“As a state we’re laser-focused on injustice, racial inequity, institutional bias,” says Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris. “This project addresses these issues.”

Half of Bottineau’s $1.5 billion budget is expected to be borne by the federal government. “Transit projects are one of the few times we see federal dollars,” says Democratic U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, whose congressional district includes Brooklyn Park.

Stakeholders in the northwest metro believes the area has waited its turn. “There is no more transit-underserved area than this corridor,” Opat says. Bottineau “lands in Brooklyn Park, the second most diverse city in Minnesota. Crystal and Robbinsdale have not seen investment post-Great Recession. All the stations we have are ripe for redevelopment.”

The Staredown

BNSF had many opportunities over many years to tell Hennepin County and the Met Council that it wanted no part of the Bottineau plan. It did not do so. Hennepin County and the Met Council had many years to secure a binding commitment from BNSF. They did not do so.

The former would have been simple, the latter next to impossible. “There is a prohibition [in federally funded transit projects] on designating properties and securing them,” says Opat, “until you have the required community studies and environmental analysis and then federal approval to proceed with the project.”

Opat thinks BNSF had no strategic reason to oppose co-location, given the Monticello Sub has so little freight activity and BNSF already has two main lines heading west from the Twin Cities.

“We want room for two tracks,” Opat says. “They think they might one day be shipping to Boeing. We can leave them width for double track. It’s mostly a 100-foot-wide right-of-way. We discussed crossings [with them]. We discussed crash walls.”

Opat says at no point in nearly a decade of on-and-off discussions did BNSF give the region any reason to believe it would oppose co-location on the Monticello Sub.

But something changed.

Most stakeholders in the Bottineau corridor think BNSF is holding the project hostage as payback for a land dispute in Crystal dating from 2015.

Robbinsdale Mayor Murphy flatly calls it “retribution.”

Hennepin County’s Soler says somewhat more soberly, “I know what my negotiations were like before and after” the dispute.

The contretemps, known to insiders as the “Crystal Connection,” involves BNSF’s effort to purchase Thomas Auto Body’s land near the Monticello Sub in Crystal. The land was to be used to build a connection between BNSF and Canadian Pacific’s line from the northwest. CP pays BNSF to use its tracks to cross the Twin Cities, and its trains were often long and slow-moving. The connection would have allowed CP’s trains access to BNSF’s system at a place better suited to BNSF’s needs.

We asked BNSF to be more transparent. They were annoyed with the whole government structure.
Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle

“The Crystal Connection was less about making additional revenue [for BNSF] than avoidance of expense,” Isaacs says. “Congested railroads deliver late shipments and [add to] crew overtime.”

Bottineau
LRT
Facts

$125 million spent to date

Total project cost:
$1.536 billion (current route)

13-mile line

Serving north Minneapolis, Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal, Brooklyn Park

11 stations

27,000 estimated weekday rides

16,000+ jobs along the line (not including downtown), expected to grow to 21,000 by 2035

31,000 people along the line, expected to grow to 36,000-plus by 2035

6,500 construction jobs

$300 million construction payroll

BNSF had not alerted the adjacent communities of its plans. “They did not come to the county for authorization or as a courtesy,” Opat says. “That CP line was busy. It carried 100-car unit trains, including oil from North Dakota. There are a lot of grade crossings used by the Robbinsdale Police Department, Robbinsdale Fire, North Memorial Hospital ambulances. Everybody in the world that heard about this did not like the idea—no municipality, no elected official at any level of government. It was a declaration of hostility. They were driving survey stakes and had told no one.”

Other officials echoed Opat’s take. “Our concern was a hazardous waste explosion in Wirth Park with creek contamination,” says Golden Valley’s Harris.

“The railroad was trying to do this in the dark of night,” adds Robbinsdale’s Murphy.

So Hennepin County took a page out of BNSF’s book and swooped in and bought the Thomas Auto Body land. There would be no connection. (BNSF eventually rebuilt a connection with CP in Northeast Minneapolis to solve some of their problem.)

“Both sides did their own thing without consultations,” Soler says. “Government just moved to stop it.”

BNSF did not tell county or regional officials that Crystal was the cause of its change of heart on Bottineau. At the time, officials were focusing on Southwest LRT, where, among other challenges, the Met Council needed BNSF’s assent to co-locate a mile of right-of-way in BNSF’s Linden Yard west of downtown Minneapolis.

Those negotiations were tense. BNSF was not happy with various units of Minnesota government, nor with Gov. Mark Dayton, who had been hammering the railroad over oil train derailments and sundry local issues while increasing oversight, says current Met Council chairman Charlie Zelle, who was Dayton’s transportation commissioner.

“We asked BNSF to be more transparent,” Zelle says. “They were annoyed with the whole government structure.”

During 2018, the final year of Dayton’s term, the Met Council and BNSF sat down to negotiate a memorandum of understanding (MOU) regarding Southwest. BNSF also wanted a payment, protection from liability for damages that would not have occurred but for the presence of light rail in the corridor, and a crash wall separating its trains from LRT. The Met Council (and Legislature) acceded; it had no choice, really. Opat wanted the MOU to include Bottineau. He says he thought the region had one shot to extract what it wanted from BNSF.

“BNSF wanted the MOU,” he says. “They wanted people to stop talking about their oil trains, about not being a good community partner. I was part of the initial meetings and I stepped back to let [ex-Hennepin County commissioner] Peter McLaughlin take it, and that was a mistake. Peter should have pushed harder. He gave up in deference to Southwest. We had shouting matches over it. This was the moment to leverage their cooperation. BNSF said, ‘We’re not talking about other corridors but Southwest.’ That was the death sentence for this [Bottineau] corridor.

“It became clear after the MOU that they weren’t going to discuss Bottineau with us,” Opat continues. “We hired a lobbying firm in D.C. We hired an attorney who is an acquisition specialist in Texas to talk to BNSF’s real estate guys about buying the Monticello Sub. BNSF stopped him from meeting with them and called the Met Council to say ‘We’re not meeting with you on any aspect of this.’ ”

TCB’s attempts to speak with BNSF CEO Carl Ice for this story were unsuccessful.

BNSF made a spokesperson available to TCB, but declined to discuss the Crystal connection. Spokesperson Courtney Wallace explained the railroad’s position this way: “As we have said for several years to Met Council, we are not interested in the passenger light rail project proposed on our property in [the Bottineau] rail corridor. We do not believe the Blue Line light rail project would be consistent with our passenger principles or protect the long-term viability of service for our current and future freight customers along the Monticello Subdivision. We evaluate this impact for each proposed passenger project on our freight railroad.”

When presented with the paradox of BNSF’s recent arrangement on Southwest, Wallace emailed, “The Southwest Light Rail project had a much smaller impact to our property—less than one mile versus the approximate eight miles of our property and associated impacts to our freight capacity in the Blue Line proposal.”

The inference from most of the local stakeholders, of course, is that the Crystal dispute poisoned the well with BNSF, and CEO Ice personally directed the railroad’s refusal on Bottineau. “It’s a cul-de-sac on their system and the CEO is making the decision on it,” Opat says.

Ice reportedly met with both Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman, whose district includes the Bottineau corridor. Walz’s staff did not respond to inquiries; Hortman declined to comment. Met Council Chair Zelle, appointed by Walz, says he has no special insight into Ice’s conversations with state leaders, but rejects the idea that BNSF is exacting retribution against the region.

“They have been very consistent, to my mind,” Zelle says. “I don’t think it’s personalities. They have told us they are moving away from co-location” as a strategic principle.

There has been speculation that once Opat retires from the county board in January, BNSF will come to the table, hence Walz and Hortman’s silence, but Zelle says he has no reason to believe that is the case.

In past transit projects such as Northstar, the region depended on clout in Washington to prompt BNSF to negotiate, Opat says. Rep. Phillips says he is trying.

“I’ve been in communication with BNSF—not to demand, but to listen, identify common ground. It has become clear to me the wrong people are at the table,” Phillips says. “We have got to find a way to set aside egos and bring some pragmatism. BNSF has every right to protect its interest. We as a community have every right to expect they would make a good-faith attempt to work in the public interest. But it takes the right people, and I am working behind the scenes to see that through.”

Phillips seems to validate Opat’s take rather than Zelle’s. “It’s about egos,” Phillips says. “It’s about an unwillingness to set aside predispositions.”

Zelle believes it’s time to move on. “There is not a D.C. solution to this; the governor can’t make it happen.”

In the interim, BNSF has found, perhaps inadvertently, other ways to rub the Bottineau region’s nose in the power the rail company exerts. The daily freight on the Monticello Sub used to run in daylight. “They now run at 3 a.m.,” says Robbinsdale’s Murphy. “It wakes me up regularly.”

A METRO Blue Line train leaving downtown
A METRO Blue Line train leaving downtown to the east. If Bottineau LRT is completed, downtown will merely be the line’s midpoint.

Train in vain?

Bottineau has languished for two years at a dead stop. So the Met Council, as the region’s transit planning body, and Hennepin County, the project’s local funder, are left to ponder how to progress. Word is the project is nearing a turning point. Stakeholders met privately in June to discuss next steps.

“Where we are now is everyone taking the scales off our eyes and asking ‘How do we proceed? ’” Zelle says.

There are three possible approaches:

• Option 1: Wait. Some industry watchers believe BNSF’s CEO is nearing retirement, and his successor could look more favorably on the project. Others say it’s just a matter of time until BNSF needs something from the state, and the bargaining chip is Bottineau.

To date, though, “we’ve been unable to find a carrot for BNSF,” says Hennepin County’s Soler. With two years of delay already under the region’s belt, however, “sitting on our hands for two more years will not be palatable” to the Federal Transit Administration, which will ultimately determine if Bottineau qualifies for 50 percent federal funding (roughly $750 million).

• Option 2: Reroute. A reroute is particularly complex because there were initially so few acceptable alternatives to the Monticello Sub. A majority of the planned right-of-way was co-located with BNSF. North of Robbinsdale, the clear solution is building along or down the middle of County Road 81, which already is slated to host much of the northern third of the route.

But the portion between Robbinsdale and downtown Minneapolis is stickier and will inevitably fuel dissent. Leaving Monticello makes it harder to serve Golden Valley and Wirth Park. It also means the line serves downtown Robbinsdale peripherally rather than in the middle of its business district.

“The Golden Valley stop is important,” says Mayor Harris. “We have 16,000 more daytime residents than at night. We are a significant employment base: Allianz, Tennant, Courage Kenny, and Honeywell.”

A reroute off BNSF “is a big negative,” says Robbinsdale’s Murphy. “It would cut up our downtown.”

And then there’s Minneapolis. As currently constituted, the Blue Line extension skirts north Minneapolis, offering just a couple stops along Hwy. 55 west of downtown. That was the choice of community leaders a decade ago. Have times changed?

“I don’t want to rely on analysis from 12 years ago,” says county commissioner Fernando. Her perspective sounds almost like a new consensus.

“It’s a needed connector, and lots of the North Side is critical of the current route,” says Minneapolis Fifth Ward City Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison, who would like his ward to see actual service rather than a sideswipe. But he’s quick to point out the same concerns raised a decade ago—disruption and gentrification. What’s changed, he thinks, is the region’s willingness to look at more innovative solutions to preserve fragile economic interests.

“The city, county, state, Met Council need to get serious about generating local ownership of property in transit-oriented design. The free market doesn’t bring that. We need to think about things like land-banking and creative financial products.” He calls the potential benefit “awesome,” but also notes its potential for “disruption in affordability and displacement.”

One intriguing possibility would have the line follow the route of the current Metro Transit 14 bus, traversing Washington Avenue in the transit-starved North Loop, then spanning West Broadway to Robbinsdale, a route not seriously considered a decade ago. “I’m a definite ‘yes’ to transit infrastructure on West Broadway,” Ellison says.

The challenges are time and process.

Soler says it would take two years to conduct a community-based reroute process and have it ready for FTA, and his estimate may be optimistic. “You’ve got to develop a route that’s competitive in the federal process in ridership and travel time,” he notes. (He adds that were BNSF to change its mind, it might take two years to negotiate final agreements with the railroad.) Losing access to the BNSF corridor places the line in city streets for its entire length. It may be difficult to maintain competitive travel times, which would degrade suburban ridership.

It seems intuitive that building outside an existing rail corridor will inevitably cost more, but Soler offers this caution: “Building in the BNSF corridor includes significant engineering challenges that would carry high costs, including building through wetland and potentially thousands of feet of retaining walls, and measures such as crash walls that may be required for co-location.

“The cost of property acquisition from the railroad would likely be significant, as well,” Soler continues. “It’s not nearly as simple as just laying down track next to existing BNSF track. We don’t know these numbers because we never got through negotiations with BNSF. But we would not say [reroute] is “likely” to make the project more expensive.”

Mike Opat will leave office at year’s end and is not sanguine about the hurdles his successor will face. “It puts you back several years. There’s no obvious route. A reroute will be quite disruptive … involve more property, significant redesign of several stations. The [previous] alternatives analysis took five years.”

• Option 3: BRT. Quietly and not for public consumption, a mode switch to bus rapid transit (BRT) has been broached—not so much because Bottineau is best suited to BRT, but because the likely cost and development time for a new LRT route looks daunting, while BRT can be developed using fewer dollars and years. It’s not a prospect generating positive vibes in the corridor, though.

That’s because BRT is a mobility solution, whereas LRT also drives development because of rail’s implied permanence. Businesses—residential developments, retail, and services—locate along rail lines. Drive the Bottineau corridor and the need for such development is evident.

“I am an absolute ‘no’ on BRT,” Opat says. “BRT has an insubstantial physical presence. It’s a huge amount of planning wasted. It doesn’t deliver equity in investment. It doesn’t drive redevelopment. It’s telling this region that ‘You’re not worth it, we’re going to dumb it down, we’re going to give you class B transit.’ ”

He is not the only one giving a thumbs-down. “I’m not interested in BRT at all,” says Robbinsdale’s Murphy. “Ridership will be much higher with LRT.”

Finally, “the community believes it will receive a rail line,” notes Fernando.

Faced with a shower of disdain, the Met Council is playing its cards close to the vest. “It’s an LRT project,” Zelle says, “but we have to look at the whole corridor and ask, ‘How does it fit into the whole system?’ ” Considering that it previously fit into the system as an LRT line, what else has changed? According to BRT opponents, only expediency.

Bottineau stakeholders derive little comfort in Zelle’s words. They talk of how steadfastly the state’s political establishment fought for Southwest LRT in the face of community opposition and/or indifference. They would like to see the same commitment for their corridor.

But they are steeled for half a loaf, if that. “People in the north metro are not accustomed to being well-served by government,” Opat says. “They don’t believe that government will really help them, [as it has for] other parts of the metro area.”

Opat is not alone. “It’s incumbent on us to advocate,” Ellison says. “We’ve got to not settle for crumbs this time.”

Mike Opat is not yet packing up his office, but he realizes he will not see Bottineau LRT through to fruition as he did with Target Field, the last high-visibility project he led for the county. “My successor has to be a champion for it,” he says, “because the communities are for it.” And he says the county’s perspective will remain preeminent, because Hennepin County taxpayers will shoulder the entire local share of the project.

Barring a major reroute (ever more possible), he says the $125 million spent to date will not be wasted, as engineering and environmental work should remain complementary.

TCB addressed the key issues in an interview with Zelle following the August 3 announcement to abandon attempts to co-locate the project along BNSF Railway’s Monticello corridor.

Of the now-$129 million in public funds spent to date, a key question is how many of those dollars are basically flushed, spent in pursuit of design work and community outreach that will need to be wholly recreated. “Some of it is a sunk cost but some of it will be built upon,” Zelle says. “If we had just kind of waited it out it would have gotten stale.”

Though the Blue Line Coalition of mayors and stakeholders is adamant the project remain an LRT line, there will be pressure to compress the timeline and public spending by shifting it to Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which has very little active support in the corridor. “Right now it’s a rail project,” Zelle says “We’re committed to LRT for all its benefits, its permanence. Now is not the time to switch modes.” He stresses Bottineau may be a mobility project, but Met Council views the term expansively: “Mobility is also about placemaking and economic development and livability.”

Next steps include beginning the process of rethinking the route, and Zelle is stressing “a commitment to work with local communities to make sure what [they want] will not be stymied. How do we structure that engagement. It’s not just about engineers, not just about lines on a map. Project staff will be looking at everything we’ve learned in last six or seven years. I think we’re going to have a better plan than had we just built up BNSF’s” right of way.

This story appears in the Aug./Sept. 2020 issue with the title “Off Track.”

Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor.

Photos and map courtesy of Metro Transit