Supporters of the Bottineau Blue Line are pressuring the Metropolitan Council to push forward with the $1.5 billion light-rail project, even though key negotiations involving use of a freight corridor along the line’s route have failed to take root.
But about 8 miles of the route are slated to be shared with freight-rail giant BNSF Railway — and the railroad is not interested in negotiating a deal with the Met Council.
“We don’t want to leave anyone with the impression we are negotiating. We are not,” said BNSF Spokeswoman Amy McBeth. “We’ve told Met Council repeatedly for the past several years and as recently as this spring that we are not proceeding with any discussion of passenger rail on our property in this corridor.”
Some Bottineau boosters say the railroad is posturing to extract a lucrative agreement from the regional planning body.
“There are two different schools of thought regarding the railroads,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis. “Either they seriously don’t want this, or they’re using this to bolster their negotiating position. It’s difficult to know.”
More than 100 supporters packed a Bottineau advisory committee meeting on Tuesday in Brooklyn Park — a “watershed moment” in the project’s history, according to Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat.
“It had been nine months since [the committee] last met. The cities were starting to ask — rightly so — ‘What’s the story here? What’s the plan?’ ” Opat said. “Everybody wanted to be sure the Met Council still supported the project.”
But some are beginning to question whether the route selected for Bottineau, which also would serve the cities of Golden Valley, Robbinsdale and Crystal, should be reconsidered given the railroad’s stance.
“I’m not sure we’ve had the tough conversations,” said Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce and a Bottineau supporter. “We need to discuss the hurdles and obstacles. The railroad is obviously a big challenge, but we need to consider a possible reroute. We need to keep fighting and keep talking.”
Met Council Chairwoman Nora Slawik said a reroute would imperil the project’s ranking in the federal funding pipeline and possibly delay its opening. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is expected to contribute almost half the cost to build Bottineau, about $753 million.
“The challenges we face are not insurmountable,” Slawik said, reiterating her support of the line.
FTA Regional Administrator Kelley Brookins told those attending a groundbreaking ceremony for the Orange Line bus-rapid transit project Wednesday that President Donald Trump supports infrastructure improvements, including transit projects. But some have questioned whether that’s the case.
At a hearing Tuesday, the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure released a study that found transit agencies face “significantly longer time frames” to extract critical decisions from the FTA and face pressure to reduce the amount of federal funding. (In recent years, the FTA has paid roughly half the cost of building big transit projects.)
“It’s highly disappointing that the data show the Trump administration defying congressional intent and being an obstacle, rather than a partner, to state and local agencies,” said committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.
Either way, the timing of Bottineau’s opening — which was planned for 2024 as recently as last spring — is undergoing a “schedule refresh,” the results of which will be released in August, according to a Metro Transit spokesman.
Still, Bottineau has a plethora of supporters, including Jeffrey Lunde, the Republican mayor of Brooklyn Park.
“This is the no-drama line,” he said, alluding to the controversial Southwest light-rail project. “We needed to remind people that there’s a lot of support for the line. I think we’re helping to nudge it forward.”