Ramsey County working to help expand east metro railroad infrastructure

Project still in early stages

 

Railroad traffic is increasing and to prepare for the growth, the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority is studying how to expand railway infrastructure in the east metro.

The county is looking at locations for such expansion — mainlines and railyards — and is in the early environmental impact study stage of the work. 

The project area roughly covers the railroad infrastructure between downtown St. Paul and Hastings, with an intensified study of the area between Interstate 494 and downtown. 

Andy Gitzlaff, senior transportation planner for Ramsey County Public Works, said the tracks between Hastings and downtown St. Paul see about 5 percent of the total national railroad volume.

Mike Rogers, transit project manager for Ramsey County, said railroad traffic is increasing mainly because the economy has been growing. 

“There’s always more goods to move,” he said, adding that the railroads that run through the Twin Cities are the main lines between Chicago and the western U.S.

“In general, it’s just a busy corridor,” Rogers said. 

Gitzlaff said that while railroad use growth can vary from year to year, the county uses the Federal Railroad Administrations estimate of expected growth for the area, which is 2 percent annually. 

Because of the region’s high use and impact on the national system, project leaders will be studying ways to keep rail traffic moving efficiently. 

Right now, Gitzlaff said rail traffic is often being slowed or stalled because trains coming in and out of freight yards are blocking the main rail line. This not only holds up freight, but also passenger trains, like Amtrak.

 

Keep things moving

By the end of this year, Gtizlaff said the plan is to create a memorandum of agreement between all the railroad companies in the area and to apply for federal programs and funding to move the project forward while doing more in-depth environmental studies. 

It will probably be five or so years before any kind of construction takes place, he added.

Gtizlaff said the biggest challenge is making sure all the railroad companies in the area — Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific — are on the same page about what will be built, and how.

The work for the project is based off a 2012 study of the east metro’s rail infrastructure conducted by the county.

The overall findings of the study found that the system in the area needs to allow for freight and passenger rail growth in addition to maintaining on-time performance, which are the goals of the East Metro Rail Yards Improvement Project.  

Gitzlaff noted that one change since the 2012 study is the Red Rock Corridor commuter project, which would create a public transit system between downtown St. Paul and southeast metro cities like Hastings, Cottage Grove and Newport. Early stages of the planning for that project contemplated creating a commuter rail line, though the plan has moved ahead to use bus rapid transit.

He said construction would most likely involve adding extra tracks and crossovers, spurs and switches. Additional lines are likely to be added to railyards to help get freight trains off mainline tracks to allow other rail traffic to move through the area. 

Gitzlaff said it’s important to note that whatever construction takes place, the county won’t be purchasing or acquiring additional land, and it will all be taking place on already-established rail-right-of-way.

While the work is dealing with issues that are similar to what is being faced near the Pig’s Eye Lake area and safety concerns there for local businesses, that specific issue is not being tackled by Ramsey County, but rather the St. Paul Port Authority. 

 

Potential impacts

Preliminary environmental impacts that the study has found so far include concerns about a few endangered species — the rusty patch bumble bee and the northern long-eared bat — and about one acre of wetlands that may be potentially impacted by the project, which the county will be required to mitigate. 

The study so far has found a few hazardous waste sites that may be affected by the work as well.  

There are also cultural concerns — archaeological, architectural and tribal — within the project area. For example, the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and the future indigenous culture projects like the Wakan Tipi Interpretive Center are inside the project area. 

The preliminary environmental impact study also looked at noise impacts for nearby neighborhoods. The areas studied include homes near Point Douglas Road, Mounds Boulevard and a small area near the Railroad Island neighborhood. Right now, noise levels in these areas range from 63 to 75 decibels, levels that could potentially increase by 0.1 to 1.4 decibels, which the study notes do not exceed federal thresholds. 

Gitzlaff said through community meetings — an open house in mid-September and a community meeting earlier this summer — many residents have expressed interest in passenger rail improvements and about the general history and connection of railroads in the area. He said there have been few concerns raised so far and that the community will continue to be engaged throughout the process. 

To find out more about the project, go to www.ramseycounty.us/eastmetrorail, call 651-266-2771, or send an email to eastmetrorail@ramseycounty.us.

 

-Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

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