Residents relieved railyard not coming to Brandon
August 02. 2013 6:00AM
Major revisions to the downtown railyard redevelopment plan have put the once-stalled $40 million project back on track, city officials said last week.
The plan was in the works for more than a decade before BNSF Railway devised a plan that was palatable to officials in both Sioux Falls and Brandon.
Now that a draft environmental assessment for the latest plan has been opened to the public, Mark Cotter says new development on 10 acres of prime commercial real estate could be as few as four years away.
“It is a very exciting day,” the city’s public works director said. “This is one of the longest environmental assessment projects the city has ever done.”
The new plan eliminates the need for a new switchyard by adding two new parallel tracks along BNSF’s main line near Rice Street and Timberline Avenue and the company making internal adjustments to its regional operations. Cotter said that, so far, he has heard no opposition to the new plan.
That is a far cry from a few years ago, when both residents and city officials in Brandon fought a proposal for a new railyard just west of Brandon.
“It would have completely stopped the growth of the city in that area,” said Brandon City Councilor Blaine Jones.
“It just would not have fit.”
Jones said the new plans, while not perfect, are a much better alternative than what previously had been discussed.
“Given the two plans, I would much prefer what they’re talking about now,” Jones said.
Under the new plan, some track would remain in downtown Sioux Falls and some trains still would travel through the area, but they would be stopping less often, Cotter said.
Instead, trains connecting from the BNSF main line to the Ellis & Eastern Railroad would make the transfer on the two new siding tracks along Rice Street. That element was necessary because, in order to be approved for federal money and reach a purchase agreement between the city and BNSF, railroad operations needed to be maintained.
Ellis & Eastern, which services concrete and gravel businesses between Brandon and the west side of Sioux Falls, would account for a significant amount of the through-town rail traffic but has been a willing partner in the project so far, Cotter said.
“They’ve been a good community steward, and they want to see this project just like BNSF and the city,” Cotter said.
July 22 began the required 45-day comment period in order to allow the city to access the $40 million federal grant earmarked in 2005. Negotiations between the city and BNSF for the purchase of the downtown land cannot begin until the comment period has ended.
“We want the public to tell us if we’re on the right track and how we’re doing,” project manager Josh Peterson said.
To that end, the city will hold a public meeting about the project Aug. 14 at the convention center and will accept comments online and by mail through Sept. 4.
Once that process is complete, barring any major objections from the public, the project’s timeline calls for a purchase agreement to be reached before the end of the year. Cotter said he doesn’t anticipate any problems during negotiations.
“It’s my opinion that this is a fairly straightforward project,” Cotter said.
About $35 million of the 2005 earmark still is available for use on the project, Cotter said. Though he was unwilling to speculate on how much the city would end up paying for the land, Cotter said the cost should not exceed $35 million.
“I think what’s really key is the project won’t cost the city any money,” said Sioux Falls City Councilor Jim Entenman.
Peterson said the purchase agreement probably would include a two-year lease of the 10 acres to BNSF so it can complete construction of the new siding tracks and make the needed adjustments to its regional operations. According to Cotter, that would allow the city to take over the site and begin environmental cleanup sometime in 2016 with parcels of land potentially going up for sale by 2017.
The city plans to remove about six inches of contaminated topsoil from the site and seed it with plants before selling any parcels to developers. Any further environmental cleanup would be the responsibility of the developer and depend on the intended use, Cotter said.
“We’ve done a lot of soil sampling,” Cotter said. “It’s much cleaner than we expected.”