WILLMAR — Two years after the first shovels full of dirt were moved in July 2019, the road construction portion of the Willmar Rail Connector and Industrial Access Project has been completed, minus a few little things that still need to be wrapped up.

"For a project of this size and complexity, it went really well," said Paul Rasmussen, project manager from the Minnesota Department of Transportation District 8.

Work began on the project, better known as the Willmar Wye, on July 9, 2019, with the well-attended groundbreaking and was substantially completed on July 2, 2021. The construction work was done by the Hoffman Team, made up of Hoffman Construction, Lunda Construction Company and Bolton & Menk.

The road portion of the Willmar Wye rail access project has been completed, just leaving the construction of the new rail line. The road portion include the realignment of US Highway 12, which now runs to the south, east and then back up to tie in with the rest of the highway near the Viking Coca-Cola building. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Transportation.
The road portion of the Willmar Wye rail access project has been completed, just leaving the construction of the new rail line. The road portion include the realignment of US Highway 12, which now runs to the south, east and then back up to tie in with the rest of the highway near the Viking Coca-Cola building. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The past two years have seen the building of a realigned U.S. Highway 12, the overpass bridges on both Highway 12 and Minnesota Highway 40, a roundabout at the intersection of the new Highway 12 and Kandiyohi County Road 5, a roundabout at the intersection of Highway 12 and the new access road leading to the businesses on 1st Avenue West.

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"It feels like a weight has lifted off, that is for sure," now that construction is pretty much done, Rasmussen said.

A roundabout and road off of the new US Highway 12 provide highway access to the businesses located on 1st Avenue West. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Transportation.
A roundabout and road off of the new US Highway 12 provide highway access to the businesses located on 1st Avenue West. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Transportation.

All that is left are a few small projects, such as completing the curve at the intersection of 45th Street West and the old U.S. Highway 12, which is mostly being used as access for area residents and businesses. The landscaping around the construction zone also requires a little bit more attention.

"Growing grass with the drought has been difficult at best," Rasmussen said.

The next step in the $48 million project is the construction of the new rail line, which will go under the new overpass bridges.

"You have a corridor between the Marshal and Morris subdivision tracks, that is where the rail will be built," Rasmussen said.

The Morris subdivision runs parallel to Highway 12, while the Marshall subdivision runs alongside Kandiyohi County Roads 55 and 15 and Minnesota Highway 23. The new track will allow trains traveling along either of those tracks to cross over to the other without having to turn engines around in the downtown Willmar railyard. The goal is to reduce the number of trains blocking road crossings, decrease the amount of train noise in town and, it is hoped, cut back on the number of possible interactions between vehicles and trains.

Two new overpass bridges were constructed, one on the new U.S. Highway 12 (shown) and a second one on Minnesota Highway 40. The new rail connector track will run under the bridges. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Two new overpass bridges were constructed, one on the new U.S. Highway 12 (shown) and a second one on Minnesota Highway 40. The new rail connector track will run under the bridges. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The construction of the new track will be the responsibility of BNSF Railway. According to Lydia K. Bjorge, BNSF executive director of public affairs for Minnesota and Wisconsin, the railroad will begin work on grading for the new trackbed this month and that work will continue through the fall and winter. The laying of the track will begin in early summer 2022 and is estimated to be completed in the fall.

"We continue to coordinate closely with MnDOT and Kandiyohi County on access and our construction schedule as we get our portion of the project underway," Bjorge said in an email to the West Central Tribune.

The Willmar Wye project has been a private-public partnership since its earliest days, back in 2015 when the project received a $10 million federal grant. The partners include the U.S. Department of Transportation, BNSF, Kandiyohi County, the State of Minnesota, city of Willmar and the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

Rasmussen also thanks the public for their assistance during the construction that caused traffic delays and long detours.

"I appreciate their patience as we got through it," Rasmussen said.