At first glance, the inability of metro area planners to find a way for the Bottineau light rail transit line to use freight railroad property between Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park would be of little interest to I-94/Highway 10 travelers or to Monti/Becker area economic development interests. But a closer, more creative look would suggest otherwise. Here’s why:
The pathway Bottineau seeks actually extends as a freight railroad spur past Brooklyn Park and then through Osseo and Rogers before ending west of Monticello near the Xcel nuclear power plant and the I-94 service road. At that point, it is but 5 miles from a potential connection with the freight railroad’s main line network near the Sherco power plant just across the Mississippi River near Becker. If such a rail connection over the river existed, freight shippers on the line between Monticello and Osseo could be served by trains coming southeast out of Becker rather than west out of Minneapolis. These trains operating out of Becker would not need to venture southeast of Osseo because there are no active rail shippers beyond that point, leaving the Bottineau right of way between Brooklyn Park and Minneapolis exclusively for transit, recreation, and related development.
The rail bridge connection over the Mississippi River to get from Monti to Becker will, however, likely cost over $100 million, an amount even the big-spending transit community would balk at. But that bridge could be built as a dual use rail-highway structure to handle traffic between nearby I-94 and Highway 10 that would eliminate the need for the long-planned and badly needed $130 million Highway 24 bypass crossing a few miles upriver near Clearwater. Such a structure would also keep I-94 truck traffic to/from the growing Becker industrial complex off Hwy 25 and out of downtown Monticello, thereby enhancing the complex’s ability to compete for traffic-intensive big box distribution operations looking for that rare combination of easy rail and highway access.
The dual bridge concept would bring highway money and federal transit money into the mix to cover the cost of a structure that would be at most 20% wider than a highway-only bridge and cost far less than geographically separate structures. Combine this with the avoided cost associated with eliminating the freight track from the eight-mile transit pathway through the northwest suburbs and a significant share of the Monticello rail river crossing can be covered within the stated $1.5 billion Bottineau budget.
There is also an environmental upside. Inserting a roadway over the flat, uninhabited industrial land near the Sherco plant and then crossing the Mississippi between two power plants in place of a freeway crossing at a more secluded and scenic point upriver near Clearwater is a net positive. So is diverting projected Becker industrial and distribution complex truck traffic from downtown Monticello. And so is the easing of those annoying weekend traffic delays on the Highway 24 river crossing gauntlet through Clearwater.
This, to be sure, would be a challenging undertaking, requiring the sort of multi-partisan stakeholder collaboration you rarely see these days. But it is also the sort of pervasive and creative infrastructure improvement initiative that a wide range of Metro and Central Minnesota taxpayers – from weekend cabin dwellers to urban transit users to economic development promoters – can and should embrace. From what we have seen so far, there appears to be little to lose by trying and not much else left to try.
The authors are founding members of Citizen Advocates for Regional Transit, a group promoting mobility and equity enhancing transit solutions at www.citizensforregionaltransit.com/