Officials praise collaboration to secure $10M federal grant for Willmar railroad wye
WILLMAR — With a massive 1920s-era steam engine serving as a backdrop on a crisp autumn Friday afternoon, federal, state and local officials praised the collaborative effort to secure a $10 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant that is a key funding piece for a $48.8 million railway wye project in Willmar.
When it’s completed, about 10,000 feet of track will be built between two Burlington Northern Santa Fe main lines on the west side of town.
“This is great for the rail industry. It’s great for the city of Willmar. It’s great for economic development. It’s great for the county, the state and also the feds,” said Mayor Marv Calvin.
The wye will allow seven to 10 trains to bypass Willmar’s downtown railyard every day — or about 3,000 every year — which will improve safety and reduce noise and traffic congestion from trains blocking roads.
It will also provide a new commercial connection in the industrial park that will “get commerce where it needs to go to quicker and faster and more efficiently,” Calvin said. “This is a very important project.”
This project is so important that Sen. Al Franken, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg left Washington, D.C., to spend the day in Willmar to celebrate the TIGER grant, which stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery.
There were 627 eligible TIGER grant applicants from 50 states, with 39 selected to receive funding.
“We cannot be happier to be here today and to be helping to do our part to fund a project like this,” Feinberg said. “This is really the perfect TIGER project in terms of what we’re looking for in projects.”
Besides increasing train efficiency and safety, Feinberg said the project will enhance the quality of life in Willmar by reducing blocked road crossings in town that can impede emergency vehicles and “people picking up their kids and getting home from work.”
Amy McBeth, director of public affairs for BNSF, said the public-private partnership is crucial to the success of the project.
“Obviously the railroad is an important part of the community here,” said McBeth in a brief interview. “And this will help both in terms of efficiencies for rail operations but also in terms of local community and help reduce some of those train activities. We’re very pleased to be part of that.”
Besides the TIGER grant, funding for the wye project includes $16 million from BNSF, $15 million from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, $3.77 million from state bonding and about $830,000 from the city of Willmar, Kandiyohi County and the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.
Klobuchar said the combination of private money and taxpayer funds was crucial for this project.
“We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the partnership,” she said.
“This project is a shared responsibility,” Franken said. “It shows that government works when communities work.”
Willmar’s TIGER application was denied four years ago, but heavy lobbying by Gov. Dayton, state transportation officials, Minnesota’s congressional delegation and local highway engineers who flew to D.C. to meet with federal transportation officials seemed to help this year.
“This is a group effort,” said Franken, adding the project will augment a recent emphasis to address safety concerns with oil tankers that roll through towns like Willmar.
Although the $10 million TIGER grant was less than the $15 million that had been requested, Calvin said the combination of public and private funds means there is a shortfall of about $1.3 million.
“We’ll work on that,” Calvin said in a brief interview. “We’ll identify that money. We’ll make it happen.”
Calvin was noncommittal about where the additional money would be found, but he said the issue will likely be discussed with the Minnesota Senate bonding committee when members come to Willmar next week.
Calvin said all funding options will be considered and reiterated that “the project will get done.”