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EDC votes to earmark money for proposed rail bypass

WILLMAR -- The Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission has earmarked $50,000 to support a proposed railroad bypass on the west edge of Willmar.

Members of the EDC's joint operations board voted Thursday to set aside undesignated funds for the potential project.

The city of Willmar will be asked as well to contribute $50,000 toward the next phase of the project.

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway hasn't yet made a final commitment to the massive project, wh-ich is estimated to cost anywhere from $33 million to $58 million.

If the proposed bypass project goes forward, it would shift the Morris-to-Marshall subdivision rail traffic to the west end of Willmar and away from the downtown railyard.

What has local economic development officials especially interested in the project is the increased rail access it would bring to Willmar's industrial park.

"That would now be part of this project," Steve Renquist, executive director of the EDC, explained to the board Thursday.

The proposed rail bypass also would bring the railroad closer to the Willmar Municipal Airport, opening up the possibility of developing more cargo service at the airport, Renquist said.

"This is an opportunity that would present itself," he said.

"This is a very unique opportunity," agreed board member Bev Dougherty.

The rail bypass could help pave the way as well for commuter rail service from Willmar to the Twin Cities.

BNSF has already completed a feasibility study.

One of the next steps is for the railroad to apply for a planning grant to help cover the costs of preliminary engineering and an environmental review. Through the federal stimulus program, the U.S. Department of Transportation has $600 million available in competitive grants for transportation projects, with priority given to those that include local partnerships and funding from sources other than federal dollars.

Pre-applications for the grants are due next week. Final applications are due Aug. 23. The grant awards will be announced in October.

Renquist said the EDC's vote allows the Economic Development Commission to designate a $50,000 contribution if the railroad bypass project moves forward. "There's no transfer of money at this point," he said.

If the project doesn't take place, the money would revert to the EDC's undesignated fund, he said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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