A tentative proposal by the University of Saint Thomas and master developer Ryan Companies to build a new hockey arena and two ballfields on the site of an abandoned Canadian Pacific Railway yard adjacent to the former Ford Plant has raised concerns about the future of the CP Rail spur that runs between the railroad yard in Highland Park and the former Schmidt Brewery near West Seventh Street and Jefferson Avenue.

Ryan Companies has an option to purchase the 13.5-acre railroad yard and include it in the 122-acre Highland Bridge development. However, the 4.5-mile rail spur that leads from the railyard has been eyed in city studies as a future bicycle and pedestrian trail and possible transit route.

Ford spur
The Canadian Pacific Railway spur is shown in the map above in green.

 

The Highland District Council (HDC) cited the 2018 Reimagine the Ford Spur study earlier this month when it adopted a resolution asking the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority to purchase the dormant railroad spur as soon as possible.

   

Ramsey County commissioner Rafael Ortega, who represents Highland Park and the West End neighborhoods on the County Board, also chairs the county’s Regional Rail Authority. According to him, the County Board does not have a position on the CP Railway spur currently. “But we believe the county is in a good position when the time comes to work with the railroad and other agency partners on this issue,” he said.  

The purchase and reuse of the old rail spur involves decisions that would be “costly and long-lasting,” Ortega said. According to him, they demand due diligence. The property alone would cost about $40 million, he said.

The purchase and reuse of the old rail spur involves decisions that would be “costly and long-lasting,” Ortega said. According to him, they demand due diligence. The property alone would cost about $40 million, he said.

 

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“There’s a substantial public purpose in the county’s purchase of the spur line,” said HDC board member Mat Hollinshead. However, it has been difficult to get answers about the rail line, he added. CP Railway is not commenting on the proposed sale of the rail yard nor on any plans for the rail spur, Hollinshead said.

HDC board members said they like the idea of reusing the spur for improved bicycle and pedestrian connections between Highland Park and the West End.

Many other issues to consider

Ortega also cited the ongoing Riverview Corridor transit study and the possibility of using part of the rail spur for a proposed streetcar line from downtown Saint Paul to Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport and the Mall of America. “As part of the Riverview Corridor work, the county is working through an extensive evaluation process that includes analyzing the right mix of transit, bicycle and pedestrian uses to best serve our residents,” Ortega said.

The West Seventh/Fort Road Federation, whose bailiwick includes the northeastern segment of the rail spur, is holding off on any recommendation on the future of the spur until March. One longstanding concern on the West End is how close the railroad right-of-way comes to some homes and how the residents of those homes would be affected by any new uses. In 2019, the West Seventh Federation approved a resolution supporting bike and pedestrian uses of the old rail spur, according to Casey Carmody, who chairs that district council’s Transportation and Land Use Committee.

Another issue raised by HDC members is CP Rail’s recent purchase of the Kansas City Southern Railroad. Industry publications indicate that the deal would create the first direct railway linking Canada, the United States and Mexico with a network of tracks spanning 20,000 miles. The creation of what is being called CPKC railroad is awaiting federal approval, but it could have an effect on the future disposition of the CP Rail spur.

Whatever the future holds for the rail spur, it will be some time before anything is decided, according to Ortega. “There are many steps, for both CP Rail and the county, between where we are today and any purchase of the rail spur,” he said.

Railroad companies have to follow the federal Surface Transportation Board abandonment process prior to any purchase agreement, according to Ortega, and at any time during the abandonment process, if another entity should acquire the property for continued use as a railroad, that would end the abandonment process.

— Jane McClure

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