Counties eyeing old railroad line

By Shannon Fiecke

It would likely take at least $5 million for Scott and Carver counties to purchase an abandoned rail line that was last used for shipping sugar and turn it into a regional trail that people could someday use to reach Minneapolis.

Although construction of a trail could be decades away, the counties are trying to reach an agreement with Union Pacific Railroad soon so they can preserve the 6.2-mile corridor, which stretches from the Renaissance Festival in Louisville Township to Chaska near the United Sugars plant.

Appraisals for the land range from $1.4 million to $1.7 million, but there is also a main rail bridge over the Minnesota River that needs to be removed soon. That could cost approximately $1 million.

Scott County has also identified more than $3 million in costs to eventually upgrade the rail-bed and replace or retrofit bridges on its side of the river.

The sale of the rail line would be contingent on the counties receiving most of the funding for the purchase from the Metropolitan Council.

Union Pacific has backed away from the $3 million value it believes the corridor as a whole is worth, Scott County Parks Manager Mark Themig said, and is now going with its $1.7 million land appraisal.

The Metropolitan Council arrived at a lesser value for the land, $1.4 million. Scott County’s portion of the corridor under that appraisal would be worth $200,000.

If the corridor isn’t sold for a trail (technically a trail would be an “interim use,” as the corridor would be held by the federal government for possible future rail opportunities), pieces of the line will likely be sold off to area residents or revert back to original property owners, Themig said.

Scott County commissioners, in a recent workshop, said they are OK with the counties spending $1.4 million toward acquiring the entire corridor: $400,000 to purchase the land and another $1 million to remove the main rail bridge over the Minnesota River. United Pacific would be responsible for salvaging the tracks and ties and removing crossings in Carver County.

The railroad company has declined to donate the corridor as a tax write-off (an estimated value between $1.4 million and $1.6 million), as had been suggested by Scott County.  In addition to this, the county had asked that the railroad remove the main bridge.

Themig said counties may be able to get three-fourths of the funding needed to buy the corridor and remove the bridge with a grant from the Metropolitan Council. Carver and Scott would be responsible for the remaining 25 percent. The counties might be able to cover a portion or all of each of their local matches by selling easements along the corridor for sewage pipes. 

Bridges

In total, there are seven bridges associated with the rail line that may need replacing or retrofitting in order for a trail to be laid. If the corridor were designated as a regional trail, the counties could apply for state or federal funding for the bulk of this cost, however.

The immediate need is to remove the main bridge over the Minnesota River, which is “structurally deficient” and is causing log jams and preventing anglers from getting upstream or downstream, Themig said.

There is likely to be pressure from the Army Corps of Engineers (which has already sent a letter of inquiry to the Union Pacific) for this bridge to be removed.

The future cost of converting the rail-bed in Scott County for a trail and upgrading four bridges is estimated to be $3.2 million. (This includes $2.2 million for putting in a new bridge over the Minnesota River.)

It’s unknown what work may be needed for the three other bridges. Carver County has not studied the cost of upgrading three bridges on its side of the river, Themig said. 

The sale of the rail-line is also contingent upon the designation of the corridor as a regional trail, which would make it available for future state and federal funding.  

Union Pacific is anxious to resolve the sale of the line soon, Themig said.

The two counties will also need to decide how to split the costs of the project. If the counties are successful in purchasing the line, construction may be decades away, Themig said, unless Scott County managed to quickly assemble enough money from the state and federal government to retrofit the rail line.

The counties wouldn’t lose any existing real estate taxes if they obtain the rail line as none are currently paid on the line.

Once completed, people could use the trail to reach an existing trail that goes from near the Chaska/Chanhassen border up to Hopkins and onto Minneapolis. There is currently a small gap between that trail and the Union Pacific rail line, but there are future trail connections planned, Themig said. 

Old use The Union Pacific rail line wouldn’t even be up for sale had a trestle not collapsed just upstream of downtown Carver in March 2007, sending several railcars full of sugar into the Minnesota River.

The railroad removed the downed trestle and decided not to replace it, rendering the line useless for United Sugars in Chaska

Two winters ago, Union Pacific filed paperwork to abandon the section of rail between the Renaissance Festival grounds and United Sugars in Chaska.

The railroad was facing a bill of up to $8 million to fix the bridges and tracks on the line. But according to the Surface Transportation Board’s decision document, Union Pacific argued that “freight revenues were insufficient to justify costs of rehabilitation or reconstruction.”

Union Pacific stated it was hauling between 600 and 800 carloads in each of the previous few years. In the year before the collapse, the railroad had carried 764 carloads at a profit of $23,823. According to the railroad, there were no prospects for increased traffic or revenues on the line. The railroad’s sole customer at the time, United Sugars in Chaska, filed a protest to keep the line in service, but was unsuccessful despite complaints of the increased cost of alternate transport.

Since the collapse, United Sugars has been receiving bulk sugar at its Chaska plant via truck, which has substantially increased its costs.

Shannon Fiecke can be reached at (952) 345-6679 or sfiecke@swpub.com

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