Kaline Sandven and her daughter Finley in their backyard in Northeast near BNSF's track extension project. Crews have removed several trees, including nine cherry trees, from her backyard. Credit: Photo by Sarah McKenzie

Kaline Sandven and her daughter Finley in their backyard in Northeast near BNSF's track extension project. Crews have removed several trees, including nine cherry trees, from her backyard. Credit: Photo by Sarah McKenzie

Rail project roils Northeast neighbors

Updated: April 8, 2016 - 1:48 pm

Several property owners in the Holland neighborhood of Northeast have found themselves in the crosshairs of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway track extension project.

BNSF is moving ahead with the project to ease rail congestion, said BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth. Crews will be adding a fifth track to the line and building a retaining wall for the embankment on the west side of the rail tracks from Lowry Avenue to Washington Street and Washington to 22nd Ave, she said.

McBeth said the railroad company has been talking with six property owners near the project area and done surveys showing several structures encroaching on railroad property.

“We have said any structure on our property will not be impacted — garages and sheds can stay in the current location,” McBeth said, adding that the railroad company will continue to work with residents to minimize the impact of construction and make arrangements for using rail property moving forward.

McBeth said BNSF decided to pursue the Northeast track extension project after state leaders passed legislation last session that blocked plans for a new connection track in Crystal. Construction of the new track and retaining wall is expected to be completed by winter.

“There will be no new train traffic moving through the area,” she said. “Those same trains already move through there on another track near where the new track will be built.”

Meanwhile, impacted property owners and community leaders have raised concerns about the lack of notice about the project and the validity of land surveys used to define property lines.

State Rep. Diane Loeffler (DFL-60A), who represents Northeast neighborhoods, said the community deserves a “respectful process” that gives property owners enough time to understand the project and investigate their legal rights.

Vegetation around the project area, including several mature trees, has already been cleared.

Kaline Sandven said BNSF has told her that her garage is on their property and she could lease it back from them. She lives in the house with her husband and her 2-year-old daughter Finley, who enjoys playing in their backyard.

Crews have removed several trees from her yard, including nine cherry trees, removing a nice buffer between her property and the train tracks.

She’s been meeting with her neighbors to determine how best to negotiate with BNSF and is examining her title insurance to determine the accuracy of the BNSF land survey.

She said she’s also frustrated with how little information BNSF has revealed about the contents of the train cargo traveling along the tracks behind her home.

“At the end of the day, I just want it to feel like my home again,” she said, as she pushed her daughter on a swing in their backyard.

Adelheid Koski, president of the Holland Neighborhood Improvement Association, said neighborhood leaders have also been meeting with the impacted property owners to offer support.

She said people who live in the area have made peace with life near rail lines, but would like to see more dialogue happen with BNSF about their operations and plans for the area.

“We need a timeout,” she said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sens. Al Franken and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin held a roundtable on rail safety issues with other Minnesota and Wisconsin officials and citizen activists Wednesday at the Firefighters Hall and Museum near the site where BNSF is planning the rail extension.

During a press conference after the roundtable, a unit train appeared behind the senators — the kind that often carries Bakken crude oil.

The senators, both Democrats, pledged to do more to address safety concerns about trains carrying volatile crude oil and other hazardous materials through populated areas like Northeast.

They said recent federal rules issued for trains carrying oil and other flammable liquids don’t go far enough to safeguard communities. The rules mandate all oil trains have new safer tank cars within five years.

They said first responders need better training to prepare for potential derailments and need equipment that will enable them to communicate with police and fire departments from other jurisdictions. They also agreed there should be more grade-separated rail crossings to prevent ambulances and other emergency workers from having to wait several minutes for a train to pass.

State Sen. Kari Dziedzic, who represents Northeast and neighborhoods around the University of Minnesota, also raised concerns about the condition of rail bridges and noted that Northeast is home to 45 rail bridges.

Cathy Velasquez Eberhart of the grassroots group Citizens Acting for Rail Safety (CARS)–Twin Cities, another roundtable participant, said she is frustrated that her family and her neighbors were never informed that would be faced with living next to a “rolling pipeline.”

She lives in the Como Park neighborhood of St. Paul — a community surrounded by BNSF and Canadian Pacific rail tracks.

“The simple fact is that when most of the current lines were put down in this country, they weren’t transporting dangerous substances like Bakken crude or ethanol, not to mention things like anhydrous ammonia, chlorine or liquid gases like those involved in the recent Tennessee derailment,” she said. “While it might have made sense to route trains through the heart of towns and cities when trains were transporting grain, it makes no sense to run hazardous materials on these same routes today.”

(Below: A map of the BNSF project area where the retaining wall will be built).