State Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, has seen firsthand the inconvenience of having dozens of rail cars sitting empty in Lakeville's residential areas — something that's gone on for over a decade.
"I used to live in the neighborhood that got trapped by the trains," he said, referring to a string of rail cars that, when moved, temporarily blocked his neighborhood's only entrance.
It's not the only problem caused over the years by the cars , which are owned by other companies but handled and stored by Lakeville-based Progressive Rail, which in turn leases the tracks from Canadian Pacific Railway.
Homeowners worry about tanking property values due to their aesthetics — some cars are covered with graffiti — and teens are known to climb on them, a safety hazard.
"That's just a disaster waiting to happen," said Justin Miller, Lakeville city administrator.
But a solution may be in sight. City and state leaders want to build a section of tracks, called a spur, to load, unload and store rail cars so they remain in Lakeville's Airlake Industrial Park rather than lingering near homes.
The project received $750,000 in federal funds for planning purposes in January and Koznick has sponsored a bill this session that would pay for the facility's estimated $7 million construction cost.
Lakeville would own the spur and lease it to Progressive. The city would lease the land from the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which owns unused acreage near Airlake Airport.
The project would benefit Progressive and other local industrial users if built, said Lakeville Mayor Luke Hellier.
"To me, it's like, yeah, we're solving the storage issue of the tracks, but in the long-term we're going to be more attractive to businesses that want to grow in the city," Hellier said.
Hellier said Progressive is on board with the project, though owner Dave Fellon said it was a Lakeville project and questions were best answered by the city and other partners.
Getting the project through the engineering and design process would make it shovel-ready, said Hellier, and allow the city apply for other sources of federal rail funding, too.
Koznick said a "linchpin" of the project would be a stipulation in the lease that the rail cars must be stored at the spur, not in residential areas.
"We focus a lot on highways and light rail and bus transit ... but as a transportation committee we haven't spent a lot of time talking about how we move freight around the state as an economic tool," Koznick said.
Koznick sponsored three bills last year related to the project but none passed. It could end up costing closer to $8 million, Koznick said, but the exact amount requested can be amended or funding can be sought from another source.
Hellier and Miller noted that there are several steps to go before the project is a sure thing.
"It's not a done deal but this is farther than we've ever gotten on a solution," Miller said. "We have real money in hand that will get us closer to being shovel ready."
Design work will be done this year, Miller said, with a goal of starting construction in 2024.
He said the city has previously looked into making changes to zoning, land use and code enforcement to keep the cars from being stored in neighborhoods but "federal law really pre-empts cities from doing anything related to railroads."
Doug Anderson, Lakeville's former mayor, said the issue is one of public safety — and it's an economic development opportunity as well.
Anderson lives in the neighborhood near Lake Marion with just one point of access — Jaguar Avenue. He recalls a time in the last five years where the street was blocked for over a half hour by the moving rail cars.
He hoped he would see the issue resolved in his last term as mayor, which ended in December, but it didn't happen, he said.
"I just would be very pleased to see it come to fruition," he said. "We've put a lot of hard work into this."