WILLMAR — At the end of the old Willmar Municipal Airport runway Tuesday afternoon, golden shovels manned by federal, state and local dignitaries dug out the first few piles of dirt in the Willmar Wye railroad project.
“It has been a long journey for many of us and we have accomplished a lot of things with it already,” said Jon Huseby, Minnesota Department of Transportation district engineer for District 8, based in Willmar.
The Willmar Rail Connector and Industrial Access Project, better known as the wye, has been in the planning stages for several years. A public-private partnership between BNSF Railway, Kandiyohi County, the city of Willmar, MnDOT and the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, the wye will see the construction of rail and roads, along with a rail spur into the Willmar Industrial Park.
“This is a great project. This will only help the growth in Willmar,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Transportation Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
A new rail line will be constructed between BNSF’s Morris and Marshall Subdivision tracks, which will allow trains to travel between those two tracks without having to turn engines around in Willmar. This is expected to reduce the number of trains coming into Willmar and decrease train noise and long waits at rail crossings. Safety will also be improved by the project, as it reduces the number of at-grade rail crossings where trains and vehicles can come into conflict.
“Having safe crossings and less interactions between trains and cars is really important,” Kelliher said.
The road portion of the project includes the realignment of U.S. Highway 12 to the south of its current location, new bridges over the rail line and two traffic circles on the new Highway 12.
Another benefit of the Willmar Wye is the economic development impact it could have on Willmar and the surrounding area.
“With a rail spur, the Willmar Industrial Park will be served by all three major freight modes — air, rail and trucking,” said EDC Director Aaron Backman. “In short, the Willmar rail wye provides access, the opportunity to expand businesses and create jobs.”
Construction on the road portion of the project is set to begin this week, with road completion in the fall of 2021. The rail construction is scheduled to begin in spring 2021, with completion of the entire project in fall 2022.
The project is estimated to cost nearly $48 million. A $10 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery federal grant was awarded to the project in October 2015. BNSF will be putting in $16 million and MnDOT $17.5 million. Another $3.77 million will be funded through the Local Road Improvement Program. The county, city and EDC are also helping, contributing about $800,000 financially or in-kind.
“We really see the value of those dollars and the economic potential in infrastructure development in this project,” said Jake Schwitzer, managing outreach director for U.S. Sen. Tina Smith.
Project planning took off in earnest after the grant was awarded and included months of meetings between the partners and their staff and several signed agreements. It also included meetings with impacted businesses, landowners and the public.
“There are a bunch of staff people in this room that aren’t going to get recognized. They are the ones that met on an almost weekly basis for four to five years and did all the heavy lifting,” said Kandiyohi County Commissioner Roger Imdieke. “Those guys are the ones that really brought it home. “
The Hoffman Team was chosen as the design-build contractor for the road portion of the project in September 2018 and will be responsible for the road construction.
“We are really almost handing this whole thing off to the design-build team. That is a big responsibility,” Huseby said.
Many of the speakers touched on the public-private partnership aspect of the Willmar Wye project and how important it has been toward moving the project forward. The cooperation between the three levels of government involved has also been critical.
“There are only a handful of communities that could pull something like this off, because of the intense collaboration needed,” said State Rep. Dave Baker. “Everybody that needed to be at the table was at the table.”
The mood at the groundbreaking was celebratory, but many are already looking toward a day in the not-too-distant future when the Willmar Wye is complete and trains are moving.
“I want to thank all of the partners and all of the hard work that has made this a reality,” said Lydia Bjorge, executive director for state government affairs at BNSF. ” I look forward to today, look forward to those shovels, but I look forward to our 2022 ribbon cutting even more.”