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Willmar wins grant for new rail alignment

Janice Bitters//October 30, 2015

Willmar wins grant for new rail alignment

Janice Bitters//October 30, 2015

A significant railway bottleneck in Willmar will get a makeover with help from a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The proposed Willmar Rail Connector and Industrial Access Project, which will cost more than $46.8 million, aims to alleviate railway congestion, expand capacity and improve safety by adding a new rail alignment on the western edge of the city. The city also wants to build a new industrial park served by the new alignment.

The state originally requested $15 million in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery funds for the project, said Peter Dahlberg, rail planner for the office of freight and commercial vehicle operations at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The project will be funded by the BNSF railroad ($16 million), MnDOT ($15 million), the city of Willmar ($336,000 for right of way costs), Kandiyohi County ($459,000) and the Willmar/Kandiyohi Economic Development Commission ($35,000). The partners will meet next week to discuss options for finding the remaining $5 million needed for the project, said Bruce Peterson, director of planning and development services for Willmar.

The new rail alignment will aid trains traveling north to south – from North Dakota to the Gulf of Mexico, for example – so they will no longer need to stop in downtown Willmar. Currently, the only way for trains to travel between the two locations is to stop in downtown Willmar and turn around.

The process of changing directions, which means moving the train’s engine from one end to the other, can take hours, Dahlberg said.

“That kind of limits their capacity so they can only do a few trains a day,” he said. “Now with this new connection, trains would be able to go through without having to stop in town and turn around.”

The new rail alignment would allow seven to 10 trains a day – many of which carry oil – to avoid stopping in the city to turn around, which is expected to speed up transportation along the railway and increase safety in the city. The alignment will help with congestion throughout the railway, Dahlberg said, even on routes in the Twin Cities.

Willmar officials are pleased about the safety benefits and business potential from the new alignment.

“We’ve not made a big deal out of [the oil trains], simply because we know that the trains have to haul oil and they have to go on some of these tracks,” Peterson said. “But this has the potential to take a lot of those trains out of town.”

A second benefit to the area will be a proposed industrial park that will sit next to the new alignment, and a proposed track, or spur, that will travel into the park. Building an industrial park with rail access has big economic implications for the area, as new companies can benefit from lowered transportation costs on goods, Peterson said.

“We’ll be able to serve new companies with the spur,” he said. “We currently don’t have the ability to add new companies with [rail access] without this.”

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