Bill Blonigan declared last June that he could no longer support the Bottineau Blue Line light-rail extension.
The Robbinsdale mayor long has been a fervent cheerleader for extending the Blue Line from Target Field through his city's charming downtown and on to Brooklyn Park. But now he says a new alignment along busy Bottineau Boulevard would cut the city in half, and he's not on board.
Local officials raising concerns about a big transit line don't often generate much attention, but an obscure and untested state law calls for cities and counties along light-rail lines to approve the routes before they're built. If the Robbinsdale City Council opposes the Blue Line extension's new alignment, it's unclear how that would affect the project — but such action could add an element of drama and delay.
"As Robbinsdale citizens, we've gone from the Number 1 slam dunk [for] this Blue Line extension to the disappointed, 'Should we just settle for the third-best option?' city," Blonigan said during an advisory committee meeting in June.
City Council Member George Selman, another longtime light-rail supporter, was more blunt.
"Bill pressed the red button. I'm pounding on it," he said. "It's not going to go on Bottineau Boulevard if there's anything I can do to stop it."
What's clear is that some in Robbinsdale want the city's main station located on W. Broadway Avenue, adjacent to the city's downtown as originally planned, and not on the heavily traveled Bottineau Boulevard.
But as with all things involving public transportation, it's complicated.
Unlike the Southwest light-rail project — riddled with litigation, controversy, delays and cost overruns — planning for the Blue Line extension into the northern suburbs has hummed along for years with little fanfare.
One station was originally planned for Robbinsdale, where trains would roll up on railroad right of way to a historic transit center that's currently vacant. The option is a seamless connection located just steps away from the city's shops and restaurants on W. Broadway.
The alignment depended on the Metropolitan Council, which will build and operate the line, to strike an agreement with BNSF Railway so light rail cars could share the corridor with freight trains.
The Texas-based rail giant supported the idea early on but in recent years has dug in, repeatedly stating it wasn't interested in sharing the rail corridor. It refused the Met Council and Hennepin County's offers to buy the corridor, which unlike other private property can't be taken by eminent domain.
BNSF officials have never publicly said why they oppose the original alignment. There was speculation the company was angry after Hennepin County thwarted a new rail connection in Crystal several years ago. Others claim BNSF was concerned about the safety of operating freight trains so close to light rail.
The Bottineau project floundered as a result — and in August of last year, the Met Council took the extraordinary step of abandoning the W. Broadway route.
"It was no easy decision to make this decision to walk away," said Dan Soler, senior program administrator for Hennepin County, who previously served as Bottineau's project director for 11 years.
But powerful interests agreed, all the way up the ladder. "It is time for this project to begin writing its next chapter," said Gov. Tim Walz, regarding the decision. "It is too important for the people served by this line to wait any longer."
By March, transit planners had roughed out a new alignment for the extension. The biggest change — cheered by many — involved routing trains through the heart of transit-dependent north Minneapolis, though the exact path has not yet been determined. The northernmost stretch of the line stays close to the original blueprint.
A second station was added near North Memorial Health Hospital, which employs about 3,800 at its Robbinsdale campus. Spokeswoman Kara Hille said the hospital supports the Blue Line extension's realignment.
"Although there will be riders who are patients or visitors, the vast number of riders who come to North Memorial Health Hospital will likely be [employees]," she said in a statement.
Robbinsdale's main station, however, was relocated to busy Bottineau Boulevard (County Road 81). In Blonigan's mind, that would cleave the city's downtown from commercial and residential areas to the east.
"I think people should understand that Robbinsdale can't just settle for a project that the region loves and tears Robbinsdale in half," he said.
Blonigan encouraged the Met Council, Hennepin County and federal lawmakers to jump-start negotiations with BNSF to reinstate the old route through Robbinsdale. Federal funds are expected to pay nearly half of the line's construction costs, which were about $1.5 billion.
"It's a shame BNSF decided not to negotiate to allow this line to operate on the private railroad. I wish they would have," U.S. Sen. Tina Smith said in a statement. "Routing decisions are a local process that take a lot of factors into account, and I'll be fighting for federal funding when the project is ready for that."
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who represents Robbinsdale, said in a statement that she fully supports the Blue Line extension. "I've been in direct contact with our state and local partners about this, and am confident we will be able to complete this vital project," she said.
For its part, BNSF hasn't had further discussions on the proposed Blue Line route and doesn't intend to, according to spokeswoman Amy McBeth.
"For years we have told Met Council and the public that the proposed project isn't consistent with our passenger principles because it doesn't protect our current and future customers on that route," McBeth said.
Or as Soler observed: "That ship has sailed."
Of Robbinsdale's five City Council members, Blonigan and Selman are opposed to the new alignment. Tyler Kline and Sheila Webb said they're gathering information from the community, and Pat Backen could not be reached for comment.
Once the Met Council settles on a route later this year, lawmakers with Hennepin County, Robbinsdale, Minneapolis, Crystal and Brooklyn Park will vote on it. If a city or county votes a plan down, state law says it must suggest "specific amendments" that would facilitate approval and that the Met Council will review those requests. But the law is vague about options if disagreement persists.
Meanwhile, the Met Council and Hennepin County have launched an aggressive campaign to glean input from communities and businesses that the Blue Line would touch. County Commissioner Jeff Lunde, a longtime light-rail supporter, has organized dozens of "driveway meetings" at homes throughout his district in the northern suburbs to collect feedback about the line.
Robbinsdale residents so far have expressed concerns about pedestrian and traffic safety along the new Bottineau Boulevard route, the potential for increased crime and noise, and whether emergency vehicles from North Memorial could navigate the corridor along with the trains, according to Gene Montanez, a Robbinsdale representative on the project's Community Advisory Committee.
"It's really about getting the information out there and thinking about the implications, and trying to see what people are thinking," said Jason Greenberg, a Robbinsdale resident who co-chairs the committee.
"We need to let the process happen," Lunde said.
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752