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Rumor of BNSF backing out of Minnesota railroad bypass project called 'ludicrous'

WILLMAR, Minn. -- Despite apparent rumors to the contrary, Willmar Planning and Development Director Bruce Peterson said told the Willmar City Council, the Willmar railroad bypass project is still a go.

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Vehicles cross the railroad tacks Friday afternoon on Kandiyohi County Road 5 in Willmar. A railroad bypass project in the works is projected to reduce the number of trains going through downtown Willmar. (Briana Sanchez / Tribune )

WILLMAR, Minn. - Despite apparent rumors to the contrary, Willmar Planning and Development Director Bruce Peterson said told the Willmar City Council, the Willmar railroad bypass project is still a go.

"It has been suggested publicly that BNSF has pulled out of the project, but that is ludicrous. I don't know where people get those ideas, just foolishness," Peterson said during the recent meeting of the Willmar City Council.

Peterson said he speaks weekly with the project partners, which include the Minnesota Department of Transportation, BNSF Railway and Kandiyohi County, and the majority of the project's goals have not changed.

The plan-for what is informally called the "wye" for its Y shape-is to construct a new rail line on the west side of town that will allow trains traveling between Fargo-Moorhead and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to bypass downtown Willmar completely. The trains will be directed south instead of having to change direction in Willmar.

"It is premature to say what the final project will look like," Peterson said at the July 18 council meeting.

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The funds for the $46.8 million railroad bypass project are coming from BNSF, MnDOT, the local road improvement program and a $10 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant. Kandiyohi County, the city of Willmar and those two entities' joint Economic Development Commission are also helping with the project. Peterson said the vast majority of Willmar's contribution to the project will be staff time and providing road rights of way.

"There is no out-of-pocket costs," Peterson said.

Concerns about the wye project among city officials were raised publicly starting July 12 at a meeting of the city's Public Works and Public Safety Committee. Councilman Steve Ahmann at that meeting asked about any future quiet zones in Willmar and asked whether the wye project would really reduce train traffic in Willmar at any significant level.

Ahmann said that he has spoken to individuals at the railroad who have said the number of trains to be diverted by the bypass is far fewer-3 to 4-than the 7 to 10 trains MnDOT has estimated.

"There will be little or no difference in the amount of traffic noise or trains going through this area," Ahmann said at the July 18 regular council meeting, when he again brought up his concerns about train noise and traffic.

Ahmann said the city should rethink being a part of the project if the city is not going to receive any benefits from it.

"Why in the world would we commit to them, spending that kind of money, taxpayers' money, when there isn't going to be significant improvement?" Ahmann asked.

Peterson and Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin were unsure who was passing the information to Ahmann.

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"I've literally put hundreds of hours into this project and hearing what I'm hearing tonight is very confusing to me," Calvin said.

Peterson, who speaks to council members regularly about the wye project status during the meetings of the Community Development Committee, said he could provide even more information.

"If the council wants more information, we can certainly provide it," Peterson said.

Peterson added that representatives from MnDOT are planning on attending the Aug. 1 meeting of the Willmar City Council to talk about the wye project, and a public meeting is planned for Aug. 2. Details pertaining to the public meeting are expected to be announced soon.

Regarding the railroad crossing quiet zones, Ahmann wondered why there has not been any movement on adding more in Willmar. Currently, two crossings in Willmar are considered quiet zones, at Willmar Avenue Southwest and the rail crossing at Trott Avenue near 16th Street Southwest.

"That was a big priority for the downtown, to have those quiet zones installed in the city," Ahmann said.

When certain safety measures are installed at crossings, the Federal Railroad Administration allows communities to create crossings where the use of train horns is limited. Interest in quiet zones arose in Willmar in December 2005, when residents began asking the council what could be done to reduce the train noise.

The city had started planning to create quiet zones at several of Willmar's eight crossings, but only two were completed, and none of the downtown crossing projects has been planned for the future.

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"It doesn't seem to be on the radar," Ahmann said at the July 12 Public Works and Public Safety Committee meeting.

At that same meeting, Public Works Director Sean Christensen said adding additional quiet zones has not come up in the budget or the capital improvement program and talk to add more, including in the central downtown business district, has died down.

"I do know they're very expensive. Depending on who you ask, you get different answers of how well they work," Christensen said.

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