Twin Cities suburb has second thoughts over light rail line

It might be too late to pump the brakes on the proposed Blue Line light rail line through the Twin Cities suburb of Robbinsdale pointing north. But city leaders, including Mayor Bill Blonigan, have suddenly hedged their unequivocal support and put the line’s future in jeopardy, according to the Star Tribune.

The Robbinsdale mayor long has been a fervent cheerleader for extending the Blue Line from Target Field through his city’s charming downtown and on to Brooklyn Park. But now he says a new alignment along busy Bottineau Boulevard would cut the city in half, and he’s not on board.

Local officials raising concerns about a big transit line don’t often generate much attention, but an obscure and untested state law calls for cities and counties along light-rail lines to approve the routes before they’re built. If the Robbinsdale City Council opposes the Blue Line extension’s new alignment, it’s unclear how that would affect the project — but such action could add an element of drama and delay.

At least two of the suburb’s five-city councilors have announced opposition to the Met Council’s latest proposed route, necessitated by BNSF railroad’s long-standing refusal to allow the light rail to share its tracks. In fact, “opposition” might be an understatement given the directness of the elected official’s recent comments.

“As Robbinsdale citizens, we’ve gone from the Number 1 slam dunk [for] this Blue Line extension to the disappointed, ‘Should we just settle for the third-best option?’ city,” Blonigan said during an advisory committee meeting in June.

City Council Member George Selman, another longtime light-rail supporter, was more blunt.

“Bill pressed the red button. I’m pounding on it,” he said. “It’s not going to go on Bottineau Boulevard if there’s anything I can do to stop it.”

The Met Council refused to take BNSF at its word about not wanting to be involved in the light rail line project until a year ago. The unpopularity of the agency’s new plan to reroute the tracks through the heart of Robbinsdale may tempt some on the Met Council to approach BNSF once more. But any thought of twisting the railroad’s arm again would appear to be a waste of time.

For its part, BNSF hasn’t had further discussions on the proposed Blue Line route and doesn’t intend to, according to spokeswoman Amy McBeth.

“For years we have told Met Council and the public that the proposed project isn’t consistent with our passenger principles because it doesn’t protect our current and future customers on that route,” McBeth said.

Or as [former project director Dan] Soler observed: “That ship has sailed.”

Yet the Bottineau Line keeps moving forward under the radar after being on the drawing board for more than a decade. Never mind the reality that public transit ridership has plunged since the pandemic and may never recover with the remote workplace. Not to mention the crime wave on existing local light rail lines and massive cost overruns and environmental concerns on the construction of the Southwest Light Rail Line now underway.

No wonder the Met Council seems so smug about the outcome. Once proposed, it’s almost impossible to derail public transit projects, no matter what.