Transit planners have abandoned the long-established route of the Bottineau Blue Line — leaving the fate of the $1.5 billion light-rail project slated for the North Side of the Twin Cities unclear.
After years of "futile" discussion, Hennepin County and the Metropolitan Council said they could not reach a critical agreement with BNSF Railway permitting light-rail and freight trains to share 8 miles of Bottineau's proposed 13-mile route. The line was slated to link downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park, with passenger service beginning in 2024.
Officials insist the project will continue as a light-rail line, although a new route needs to be determined, a complicated process. The existing alignment took years to plan and engineer; so far, $129 million in local money has been spent on the Bottineau line.
"I think we'll get it done, but it will take time to get it to the right place," said Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle. "It's time to open our eyes — let's make the hard decisions and make the right decision."
Bottineau's planned route bisected some of the most impoverished and transit-dependent areas of the Twin Cities.
The news Monday that the route would not work "is extremely frustrating," said Ricardo Perez of the Blue Line Coalition, a group of nonprofit organizations that has worked for years to support the project. Still, Perez is hopeful that Bottineau has a new sense of momentum.
Reliable and safe transit is critical for members of the community to get to work, school, medical appointments and to access healthy food, Perez said. "For us to be able to have reliable transportation means a world of difference," he said.
BNSF's opposition to the project has been consistent. In a statement Monday, the Texas-based rail giant said the decision to seek a different alignment "is a good outcome."
But the news infuriated mayors from the suburban cities along the line — Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal and Brooklyn Park — who, along with the Blue Line Coalition, wrote Gov. Tim Walz and others recently demanding "meaningful action" to push the project forward.
The letter's authors said the project has a heightened sense of urgency after the killing of George Floyd, which has prompted new conversations about racial equity in the Twin Cities, including access to public transportation.
"We had a plan for serving one of the most diverse areas of the Twin Cities, and now we don't," said Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde, who criticized the "lack of transparency" that went into the decision to scrap the route.
Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris said the parties have not exhausted all options to force BNSF into an agreement with the council and Hennepin County.
"It's not time to move on," Harris said. "There are ways to get them to come to the table."
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, whose district includes several cities that would be served by Bottineau, said the railroad "once conducted themselves as partners in this endeavor. BNSF's new obstinance cannot deter our work any longer. The time to forge ahead is now."
A Met Council advisory committee of elected officials and community members will meet Aug. 13 to discuss next steps. Zelle said sticking close to the planned alignment — although not on BNSF property — would be "a natural consideration" given the investment many cities along the line have already made to prepare for light-rail service.
Hennepin County Commissioner Irene Fernando, who took office last year, said "we want to be respectful of the work that was done before. We want to keep as much intact as possible."
The project will remain in the queue to qualify for highly competitive funding from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which was expected to cover nearly half of the cost to build Bottineau. The FTA did not respond with a comment Monday.
Nailing down agreements with "third parties" like BNSF is required before federal officials will fund construction of such a big project.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, a Republican member of the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee at the Legislature, said "it's about time" the county and the council retooled the project. Torkelson said it wasn't practical to run light-rail and freight trains side-by-side for much of Bottineau's route.
He said rapid bus service, whose frequent, high-amenity service mimics light rail for a fraction of the cost, is a better bet than light rail.
Since the Bottineau line's route was decided seven years ago, the C Line rapid bus has begun service between Brooklyn Center and downtown Minneapolis through the city's North Side. Funding to complete the D Line, which would link Brooklyn Center to the Mall of America, is pending at the Legislature.