The Willmar Wye: The train project that could
It has been a long time in coming, but the end is finally in sight for the Willmar Connector and Industrial Access Project, better known as the Willmar Wye.
The road construction portion of the $48 million project was substantially completed in July and the rail portion of the project is set to begin this fall. By fall 2022, trains should be running on the new track, directing rail traffic between the BNSF Railway Morris and Marshall subdivisions, as vehicle traffic travels along the new U.S. Highway 12, over new bridges and around roundabouts.
The Willmar Wye project has existed in some form or another since at least 2011.
“BNSF approached MnDOT, the county and the city of Willmar,” said Paul Rasmussen, Willmar Wye project manager with the Minnesota Department of Transportation District 8.
BNSF had started the process to secure federal stimulus money for the project in 2011 but withdrew its application due to financial concerns. A few years later, the project would be back. In 2014, the project failed to receive a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant, but several months later, everything changed.
On Oct. 27, 2015, it was announced that the Wye project had successfully secured a $10 million TIGER grant. With the grant in hand, other funding for the project also fell into place. Each player in the public-private partnership would pitch in something to make the project possible. BNSF contributed $16 million to the project and MnDOT gave another $17.5 million. Kandiyohi County committed $459,000 while the city of Willmar committed $336,000 worth of right of way. Local Road Improvement Program funding of $3.77 million from the state went to the project and the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission spent $35,000 for economic development.
Planning and design development for the Willmar Wye kicked into high gear once the funding was figured out. MnDOT first started with the environmental studies and acquiring the needed land for the project and then turned to the actual construction plan.
“It went fairly quickly for a project this size,” Rasmussen said.
As is normal for a major road construction project, MnDOT engineers came up with several ideas and alternatives before landing on the final design.
“We come to the conclusion of what the best alternative is,” Rasmussen said.
For the Willmar Wye, this included rerouting Highway 12 to the south and east, construction of two highway overpass bridges on Highway 12 and state Highway 40 , installing two roundabouts for efficient traffic movement and the creation of an access road to businesses located on First Avenue West, which eliminated an at-grade rail crossing.
“We did quite a bit of research on that to figure out what the best solution was,” Rasmussen said. “At-grade crossings are always a safety issue.”
Road construction took two years to complete. While there were a few weather delays, overall construction finished with few issues.
“For a project of this size and this complexity, it went quite well,” Rasmussen said.
One of the main challenges of the Wye has been the unique partnership between both public and private entities. It took a bit longer to approve the master agreement between all the players, Rasmussen said, as each one operates just a bit differently from everyone else. In the end though, the agreement was a success and construction was able to move forward.
“It was something we haven’t dealt with before,” Rasmussen said. “Getting all of that to mesh was difficult and interesting.”
The partners hope the finished project will bring multiple benefits to all. For BNSF it will mean more efficient movement of trains, especially those which will no longer need to travel into the downtown Willmar railyard before heading to Morris or Marshall . This will also mean fewer trains blocking road crossings and horns blaring at all hours.
“We get the nuisance trains out of downtown,” Rasmussen said.
Fewer trains also mean fewer chances for dangerous interactions between trains and vehicles.
The new rail track, when completed, will offer the opportunity to connect with the Willmar Industrial Park . This could mean even more business options in the park.
“That should make the Industrial Park much more marketable,” Rasmussen said.
The Wye is also looking like it will benefit the wider transportation network as well.
“As we started working on this project — the county, us and the city — it spurred us to look at the area as a whole,” Rasmussen said. “What else needs to be done out in this area to facilitate the traffic on the west side of Willmar?”
The county decided to install a roundabout at the intersection of Kandiyohi County Road 5 and 19th Avenue Southwest and has been working on redesigning the area around the intersection of County Road 5 and state Highway 23. MnDOT is also making plans for that area, including constructing the four access ramps at the Highway 23 intersection.
“Those projects spurred from, it started with the Willmar Wye,” Rasmussen said.
The Willmar Wye might have taken longer than anyone wanted, but despite the delays and challenges, the hope is the Wye will end up being everything the partners hope for.
“I do think it is a good project and I am happy to be a part of it,” Rasmussen said. “I appreciate everybody’s patience while it was being built.”
This story was originally published in the West Central Tribune's IMPACT edition on Oct. 23, 2021. More stories in this section can be found at https://issuu.com/westcentraltribune/docs/impact_2021