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Ramsey County aims to ease rail bottleneck

Janice Bitters//August 31, 2016

Ramsey County aims to ease rail bottleneck

Janice Bitters//August 31, 2016

The Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority is seeking proposals for a new study and design work to improve efficiency and make way for passenger rail lines in a sprawling rail yard southeast of downtown St. Paul near Highway 61 and Warner Road.

The yard, shared by three private freight companies, is known as a regional bottleneck, said Dan Krom, director of passenger rail at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

“This is a huge chokepoint in the east metro,” he said. “As we try to develop a passenger rail network, we’re going to have to address those.”

Though the work is focusing on the rail yard, the study area would extend from Union Depot in St. Paul southeast to Interstate 494.

The RFP, which was approved earlier this month by the Ramsey County board, comes about four years after the county commissioned a broader study on rail in the region, identifying various chokepoints and needed improvements.

The Ramsey County-based rail yard just north of the Mississippi River is first on the list of priorities from that 2012 study, which identified $827 million in potential investment needs. The yard is shared by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific.

Currently, the area handles about 5 percent of the freight rail traffic in the United States, according to the Ramsey County study.

Now county planners are looking to fill a contract to provide detailed solutions to ensure that freight and passenger rail movement isn’t stifled in the coming years. Those solutions could include adding an overpass or additional track, upgrading the track switches, and creating new interchanges.

Planners have gotten all three private railroad companies around the table for discussions on the project, which is a major feat, Krom said.

“They’re competitors, and the Federal Railroad Administration even noted that to have all the Class One railroads at the table … really brings credence to the project,” he said.

The 24-month contract would cover public outreach sessions, engineering and enough environmental work to make the project shovel-ready.

Study costs, which will come to about $1 million, are being covered by MnDOT. The agency granted the money from a larger pool of state bonding funds for passenger rail projects.

Once the study is over, planners will have a better idea of how to put the plan into action financially, Andy Gitzlaff, senior transportation planner for the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, said in an interview.

“When the project’s done, there will be a better sense of … what the level of benefit for each entity is, and what the potential cost share is for future improvements,” he said.

The RFP asks for solutions to accommodate a 36 percent growth in freight and passenger rail traffic, but also is looking for new rail traffic projections, taking into account local and regional rail plans.

Freight traffic in the region ebbs and flows, Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega acknowledged in an interview earlier this month. But he wants to see the region ready to take additional traffic during the busy times and add to its passenger rail services.

Ramsey County is looking at several passenger rail options in the coming years, including an additional train between the Twin Cities and Chicago — a route that could also one day support high-speed passenger rail.

Ortega, who also chairs the county’s Regional Railroad Authority, said the RFP is the start of increasing dependability and adding to economic growth in the area.

Proposals for the RFP are due Sept. 22. Planners expect to award a contract in mid-October for a Nov. 8 start date.

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