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Willmar panel backs grant application with BNSF to reroute trains around city

WILLLAR — Possibly up to a third of the BNSF Railway trains in and out of Willmar could be diverted if the concept of a railroad “wye’’ located west of the city limits becomes reality.

The wye concept will be the focus of an application by BNSF and others including the city of Willmar for a U.S. Department of Transportation “Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery’’ (TIGER) grant.

Thursday night the City Council’s Community Development Committee voted to recommend the city join other parties in applying for the grant.

The recommendation includes approval of a memorandum of understanding under which the city, BNSF and others pursue an agreement regarding creation of the wye connection track and creation of a rail spur extension into the city’s industrial park.

Also, the committee recommended the council give preliminary approval to contributing 27 acres of land for the track’s right of way, subject to City Charter public hearing requirements.

The council will consider the recommendations April 7.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation will be lead applicant. Co-applicants along with the city and BNSF would be Kandiyohi County and the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission. The grant application deadline is April 28.

The six-page memorandum establishes a public-private arrangement to share project cost, estimated by a BNSF consultant at $50 million to $54 million.

The application will seek funds to assist with constructing 2.5 miles of north-south track, called a wye, between BNSF’s Morris subdivision track to the northwest and the Marshall subdivision track to the southwest.

A BNSF consultant said the wye would enable 7 to 10 of the estimated 30 trains entering Willmar daily to bypass the local switching yard. The wye would relocate train movements to outside the city, would reduce blockage at 12 crossings, and reduce train horns, locomotive idling and emissions.

Ryan Raske, an engineer with BNSF consultant AECOM of Minneapolis, told the committee that approval of TIGER grant applications depends in large part on strong local support, such as letters from businesses, emergency services, public entities, Chambers of Commerce and congressional members.

Raske said the feds see many rural project applications, but they don’t see many strong projects.

“We feel this has a strong opportunity for federal approval,’’ Raske said.

Jesus Celis, project engineer with the BNSF office in Minneapolis, said upper BNSF management supports the project.

“BNSF is definitely interested,’’ he said.

Besides community and environmental benefits, the wye would increase BNSF’s operational flexibility, improve its environmental footprint and result in expanded rail service opportunities to businesses and other users in the industrial park and greater project area.

BNSF would organize and fund preliminary engineering and environmental work estimated at $300,000 to determine, among other things, final location and configuration of the new track, scope of work and to identify various risks and benefits.

If the parties desire to continue developing the project, any expenses exceeding BNSF’s initial expenses will be paid by the city, county and EDC in an amount up to $300,000. The parties will share any costs exceeding $600,000.

The parties will agree that BNSF has no obligation to pursue the project if the project does not meet BNSF’s needs or adversely impacts the railroad.

To see an illustration presented to the city, click here or the link at top.

To see an aerial view diagram, click here or the link above.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150