Notes from the June 2012 Passenger Rail Forum

Target Field station will soon morph into "The Interchange"

I attended the June 2012 meeting of the Mn/DOT-facilitated Intercity Passenger Rail Transportation Forum this past Monday and took some notes.  The last meeting was in April.

Space conflicts resolved for The Interchange (Target Field station)

The lead informational presentation was all about the planned Interchange station at Target Field, an upgrade to the existing Northstar commuter rail and Hiawatha LRT platforms.  Over the past year, Hines has been working on their Dock Street Apartments project, which would fill in a parking lot just south of the Northstar train tracks.

Even though the Target Field station area has been planned as an intermodal transit hub for some time, the apartment project didn’t fully come onto the radar of transportation planners until the Minneapolis City Council approved conditional use permits for the site. Complicating matters, new and expanded heavy-rail boarding platforms hadn’t even been designed yet, since that’s part of “Phase 2” of the transit hub plans.  (The website for the Interchange currently only shows designs for Phase 1, which is more focused on expanding the light-rail platforms to handle the increased game-day loads once the Central Corridor/Green Line is up and running.)

Fortunately, an appeal was made following the CUP approval. After looking over plans, it turned out that the building took away about 4½ feet of space that would be needed for future use, particularly if the Cedar Lake Trail is to stay in the rail trench.  After several weeks of negotiations, Hines has basically decided to slightly rotate their building as compared to the original plans, which frees up the necessary space.

The Cedar Lake Trail will need to be partly relocated, and Hennepin County is planning to spend about $1.7 million to get a 25-year easement for the trail.  Hines also owns the other parking lots in the trench closer to Target Field, and plans to develop those with taller buildings at some point in the future.  Riders on the Cedar Lake Trail may find themselves inside riding through a colonnade/arcade area as pilings are sunk into the ground on the outside edge of the trail.

Needless to say, this was a near-disaster for transportation planning in the Twin Cities, which seems to have worked out for the best. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin has been calling this “the Kmart moment of this generation”, in reference to the store that was plopped down in the middle of Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis back in the 1970s. There was acknowledgment by meeting facilitator Dan Krom of Mn/DOT that this harried 10 weeks of back-and-forth between planners and developers could have been avoided if the right lines of communication had been opened earlier.

The Interchange is only planned to have two 900-foot platforms and four tracks (aside from the already-present freight line), though Mn/DOT believes this should be able to handle more than 60 trains per day.  The existing Northstar platform is 40 feet wide, but is planned to be narrowed to 26 feet, and then a second platform will be added just to the south of the current one.  Finding suitable alignments for platforms is difficult in the trench because of bridge supports that get in the way. Some early design attempts ran into problems because the pylons for the 3rd and 4th Street ramps to/from Interstate 94 would end up being right where train doors were supposed to open, but those issues have apparently been resolved.

Construction should begin soon on Phase 1 of the Interchange. The project had received bids from contractors earlier this year, but they came in over budget. Contractors were then requested to submit “best and final offers”, which are due June 11th. A recommendation for a contractor is expected on June 19th, and final approval is expected on June 26th. It sounded like construction could begin as soon as July.

2013 legislative agenda

There was some discussion of priorities for next year’s session of the state legislature. There has been less funding distributed to rail projects than expected over the last two years—notably, funding for engineering work on the Southwest LRT extension of the Green Line to Eden Prairie wasn’t included in this year’s bonding bill, and the bonding money provided to the Interchange was less than hoped for.

I didn’t follow the discussion in great detail, largely because we’re still several months out from the start of the next session. However, there was some mention of a bill brought up in this past session which would have clarified and expanded the power of the Transportation Commissioner to enter into agreements with freight railroads and Amtrak (probably HF2272). The bill only got a hearing this year and didn’t move forward. Something similar to that may pop up again next year.

Northern Lights Express (to Duluth)

The Northern Lights Express project continues to move forward. LIDAR mapping of the route was completed in April, in order to get detailed measurements of the existing conditions. As mentioned in my previous meeting report, there’s a “Hinckley loop” study underway to figure out whether the line should have a bypass added to directly serve the casino on the eastern edge of the city.

Zip Rail (to Rochester)

There are two threads of activity happening in the Rochester area. There has been talk for several years of building a freight rail bypass around the city. The topic was especially hot back when the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad was planning to expand into the Powder River Basin area of Wyoming to access the coal reserves there. That expansion hasn’t happened, however, and the expected flood of rail traffic hasn’t happened. A new rail capacity study is going to look at whether the bypass or any other upgrades will be needed along the route.

Plans for passenger rail to the city are still in early gestational stages, but a statement of work has been put together for alternatives analysis and a Tier 1 EIS.  This means we should have an actual route to plan around within the next couple of years (there isn’t any direct rail connection between the Twin Cities and Rochester, so something new will have to be built).

Saint Paul Union Depot

The updated status for the Union Depot  was short and sweet: “On time, on budget, scheduled to open in December”, according to Ramsey County’s Jim McDonough.  No word on whether Amtrak will be able to start operating there right away, however.

Enhanced rail service to Chicago

There are two rail projects in the planning stages between the Twin Cities and Chicago: A second daily roundtrip between the two areas operating at conventional speeds, and plans for multiple daily roundtrips operating at higher speeds (up to 110 mph).

The second daily train has some support from the state of Wisconsin and has the cooperation of WisDOT.  Amtrak began a 9-month study for the service on May 15th, so it should wrap up around February 2013.  Four route and terminus options are being contemplated in Minnesota:

  • Terminating at Saint Paul Union Depot.
  • Stopping at SPUD and terminating at the Interchange in Minneapolis.
  • Stopping at SPUD and the Interchange and terminating at St. Cloud.
  • Stopping at SPUD and the Fridley Northstar station and terminating at St. Cloud.

Amtrak has already conducted an inspection of the route, but will need to spend some time determining infrastructure capacity and equipment availability.  The train would likely operate with a schedule roughly the inverse of what the Empire Builder does today: It may leave Chicago in the morning and start its return run in the afternoon/evening.

Amtrak plans to spend three or four months on the study before first submitting a draft to the host railroads. They’ll get a chance to comment on it, and then it will get sent to the state DOTs.

Unlike the Empire Builder, this is expected to start as a state-supported “corridor” train.  In order to get the best possible operating ratio, some stations may get added or skipped.

As for enhanced-speed, multiple-trains-per-day service, Minnesota is moving ahead with a Tier 1 EIS for what will be needed on our side of the Mississippi River, but WisDOT is not actively participating. A new website for the EIS phase is expected to appear soon, to go aside the current page which had been used up through the alternatives analysis stage of planning.

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6 Responses to Notes from the June 2012 Passenger Rail Forum

  1. Alex June 8, 2012 at 5:43 am #

    Thanks for the report. Two comments:

    1. For those of us interested in the interaction between transportation and land use, it's scary how little transportation planners are interested or aware of what land use planners are doing and vice versa. Happy to hear that Dock Street-gate was a learning experience, now they just need to put those lessons into practice. It's still disappointing no one was thinking about rail before Hines got control of the site – it looks like the outcome will still be ok, but what if instead of a dense mixed-use building, someone wanted to build a one-story restaurant like JD Hoyt's? Then the transportation facilities would have been compromised and the prime site would have been wasted. An example of how our transportation will be continued to hobbled by past obsession with cars.

    2. It's interesting that Amtrak sends their draft to the freight rail companies before they send it to the entities that will be funding the lines, i.e. the state DOTs. Presumably it is for verifications of assumptions, but it makes it seem like the freight rail lines have veto power.

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel June 8, 2012 at 6:08 am #

      "… it’s scary how little transportation planners are interested or aware of what land use planners are doing and vice versa."

      There is a disconnect that I partially blame on individual departments (or agencies) operating within their own silos. I feel as if there is a strong case to be made to merge the Department of Transportation and the into a new entity with a land use planning and environment emphasis. The Department of Land Use, Transportation and Environment?

  2. Justin Foell
    Justin Foell June 8, 2012 at 10:37 am #

    No notes on the Northstar extension to St. Cloud (or lack there-of)?

  3. Mike Hicks June 8, 2012 at 11:31 am #

    It wasn't on the agenda and didn't come up. I'm fairly optimistic that the second daily train from Chicago will end in St. Cloud — it's a crew change point for the Empire Builder, so it would be best to avoid further splintering of the workforce.

  4. Jeb R June 11, 2012 at 5:10 am #

    Speaking of the extension to St. Cloud:

    Fridley seems to be the weakest of the options available, imo. Instead, it would make more sense to either have a stop in Big Lake or at the St. Cloud East P&R, along with terminating at the St. Cloud Amtrak station, so that people can use it to/from the Twin Cities also (as an "express" Northstar of sorts.)

  5. Nathanael June 27, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    The freight rail companies own the tracks and are not really subject to state regulation (only to federal regulation).

    So effectively, the freight rail companies do have veto power, unless the Feds throw their weight around.

    The exception is entirely new lines like the proposed Rochester to Twin Cities line, or lines which are already owned by the state government (as in Vermont) or Amtrak (as in Michigan).

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