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Ribbon-cutting celebrates completion of nearly $50 million Willmar Wye rail bypass project

After years of planning and construction, the Willmar Wye rail bypass project is finally done. On Tuesday, Oct. 25, the completion was celebrated with a ribbon-cutting with dignitaries from various parties involved in the project on hand.

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The BNSF Railway's inaugural train turns the corner from the Morris Subdivision rail line onto the Willmar Wye track on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, in west Willmar. The Minnesota Department of Transportation, in cooperation with BNSF, the city of Willmar, Kandiyohi County and the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission held a Wye ribbon-cutting event on Tuesday. BNSF then provided a train ride on the Willmar Wye for local officials and guests.
Kelly Boldan / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — It has taken more than a decade, but the wait is finally over. The Willmar Connector and Industrial Access Project — a nearly $50 million railroad bypass project — is completed and ready to receive train traffic.

Dignitaries from various partners involved in the project, along with local, regional and state government officials, gathered in Willmar on Tuesday for a ribbon-cutting and train ride to celebrate the accomplishment that is the Willmar Wye.

"The completion of this project is really important," said Jon Huseby, District 8 engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "The project itself represents railroad efficiency, economic development and safety."

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Minnesota Department of Transportation District 8 engineer Jon Huseby speaks during the Willmar Wye ribbon-cutting event on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, in Willmar.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

With all the work finished, trains needing to travel from Morris to Marshall, and vice versa, will be able to take the new rail line constructed between the two subdivision lines. This will eliminate trains having to drive into Willmar.

An important goal of the project is to cut back on train congestion in the city, meaning fewer blocked road crossings and train horns blaring. It is also hoped that it will decrease the risk of dangerous interactions between trains and vehicles at the crossings.

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"This project is going to improve both safety at the crossings themselves and reduce emergency response times for first responders," said U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach.

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A round of applause by those involved with the Willmar Wye project applaud following the ribbon-cutting to celebrate the completion of the project on Tuesday, October 25, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

The completed project could also mean additional economic development opportunities for the city and county while enhancing the rail network for the entire state.

"The movement of freight by rail and highway is enormously important to industry in Minnesota, including agricultural, manufacturing and food processing, which are all vital to Kandiyohi County," said MnDOT Commissioner Nancy Daubenberg.

The new bypass track is located just west of the Willmar Industrial Park. There has been discussion regarding constructing a rail spur into the park, which would offer rail access to businesses. While the spur has not been constructed yet, it is still a possibility in the future.

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Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Nancy Daubenberg speaks to a crowd during a Willmar Wye ribbon-cutting event in Willmar on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

"We are already seeing the ripple effects of the opportunity to bring rail into the Industrial Park with potential projects," said Sarah Swedburg, business development manager for the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, following the ceremony. "The intersection of industrial land with rail access is what companies are really looking to expand in to. It is a really exciting moment."

The idea for the Willmar Wye started in 2011, when BNSF Railway approached the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Kandiyohi County and the city of Willmar about constructing a rail bypass on the west side of Willmar. The project turned into a private-public partnership that worked together to not only lock up funding for the project but be there through every step of planning and construction.

"This project is an example how communities and private industry can come together with shared goals to improve the quality of life," Fischbach said.

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U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach addresses the crowd during the Willmar Wye ribbon-cutting event in Willmar on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

It took several years before the project was successful in obtaining a $10 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant, which kickstarted the entire project into the next stages in 2015.

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Funding came from both private and public entities — BNSF paid $16 million, MnDOT funded $17.5 million, Kandiyohi County committed $459,000 and the city of Willmar handed over $336,000 worth of right of way. Also helping to fund the project was $3.77 million of state Local Road Improvement Program funds and $35,000 from the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

"Projects like this will spark continued investment and growth and will have effects in the region and this community," Fischbach said. "This is what building strong rural communities is all about."

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Audience members applaud during the Willmar Wye ribbon-cutting event on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, following the recognition of partners in the railroad bypass project.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

MnDOT staff from District 8, based in Willmar, managed the project start to finish. They worked with the Hoffman Team, chosen as the project contractor, to design and build the road portion of the project, which included realigning U.S. Highway 12, construction of two bridges that would route road traffic over the new rail line, two roundabouts and an access road for businesses located on First Avenue West. Road construction began in July 2019 and was finished two years later.

BNSF began construction of the new rail line in the fall of last year, with construction wrapping up in September. The new track runs between the Morris and Marshall subdivision lines. The Morris route runs parallel to Highway 12, while the Marshall track runs alongside Kandiyohi County Roads 55 and 15 and Minnesota Highway 23.

Also playing an integral part in making the Willmar Wye possible were the Willmar City Council, Kandiyohi County Board and the EDC. Fischbach thanked those boards for their vision and support.

"I want to thank everyone who has been working on this project for years to make this possible," Fischbach said. "So many people from private companies to every level of government have put so much hard work into this to make it happen."

Here is video of events during the opening of the Willmar Wye project on the BNSF Railway network in west Willmar on Oct. 25, 2022.
Additional coverage of the Willmar Wye
Road construction for the Willmar Wye project is practically completed and the next step is the rail construction, led by BNSF Railway.

While there were challenges in creating a project that worked for all parties, in the end everyone was able to come together.

"There were shared values and a shared vision, and we continued to collaborate and coordinate and ultimately succeed in completing a project that brings tremendous value and multiple benefits to the community and the state of Minnesota," Daubenberg said.

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While the chilly temperatures and blustery winds on Tuesday made for less than ideal conditions for an outdoor ceremony, the mood was high as attendees celebrated the completion of the Willmar Wye. Now attention turns to continuing the economic growth in Willmar and Kandiyohi County.

"We are very pleased to have this ribbon-cutting here today," said Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin, following the ceremony. "This is really great for Willmar, really great for the region and now let's get on with developing and finishing our Industrial Park."

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The BNSF Railway's inaugural train travels along the Willmar Wye tracks on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, in west Willmar. The Minnesota Department of Transportation, in cooperation with BNSF, the city of Willmar and Kandiyohi County and the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission held a ribbon-cutting event on Tuesday. BNSF then provided a train ride on the Willmar Wye for local officials and guests.
Kelly Boldan / West Central Tribune

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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