Back to the May-Jun 2020 issue

Factor Railroads Into Your City’s Development Planning

By Justin Pearson

In cities across the state, old buildings that once sat vacant are now hubs of activity, bringing new life to areas of town as coffee shops, breweries, restau­rants, and high-end condominiums.

This development is exciting, but it’s important for city planners and local offi­cials to retain zoning and protect land for industrial uses. Industrial businesses fuel the economy and provide high-paying jobs, which brings in people who will use those urban amenities. Another import­ant element to factor in is railroads.

Example in St. Paul

Consider St. Paul’s West Midway Industrial Area. It’s home to multimodal options — roadway access, a short line railroad, and a larger Class I railroad — that all work together to prime economic development and growth for the region.

The city’s Comprehensive Plan rec­ognizes industrial land uses are a major source for employment and that it’s in the community’s best interest to help local businesses grow and attract new industrial investments.

Photo of a rail car.

As writer, urban geographer, and St. Paul Planning Commission member Bill Lindeke has noted, St. Paul planners are aiming to balance older and newer concepts for industrial property. That can create challenges when industries require roadways and railways to prosper, and cit­izens want breweries and walkable spaces.

No matter how that compromise vision is carried out, communities need to prioritize zoning that allows industries to grow while retaining railroad access to help those companies reach their domes­tic and international markets.

Railroads are a key piece

Railroad access — either from a major Class I railroad or a smaller regional or short line railroad — provides a community with an environmentally friendly, cost-efficient way to move goods and materials.

A freight train moves one ton of freight 500 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel. One train hauling double-stack containers (referred to as an intermodal train) can remove up to 280 trucks from the roadway, reducing wear and tear and lowering congestion on highways.

Not every city has railroad history dat­ing to the mid-1800s and the significant railroad infrastructure of St Paul. But communities of varying size can capital­ize on rail access to serve as an economic engine and position them for the future on a global scale.

Planning ahead

How does a community take advantage of a railroad running through its Main Street? Not every city can have an exit ramp off Interstate Highway 94, and not every town and business can build a spur track from mainline railroad tracks criss­crossing the state.

But in some communities, space is being reserved in a thoughtful, coor­dinated way to construct new indus­trial parks that will host larger-scale rail operations.

Railroad economic development teams now work with city planners years in advance of planned industrial develop­ments. Early discussions help focus how best to use existing rail and where to expand if possible.

Becker’s collaboration with railroad

The City of Becker’s new expanded industrial park, with its ample acreage, is an example of advanced planning and coordination between the rail indus­try and local government. Located in Sherburne County, the Becker Industrial Park is 67 acres with contiguous lots. It’s zoned heavy industrial, is bordered to the east by a Class I railroad, adjacent to U.S. Highway 10, and nine miles from I-94.

Working with the railroad from the beginning, city officials secured a “Certified Site” designation, which ensured the site would be rail-served and could rapidly house industrial businesses. A pre-construction site analysis was completed, including evaluation of environmental and geo­technical standards, available utilities, site availability, and existing and pro­jected rail and road infrastructure.

The goal was to recognize and market these community rail-served sites that are available for immediate develop­ment. This advanced work saves a busi­ness looking to locate to the site six to nine months of construction time. That speed to market could make the differ­ence in a company choosing Becker’s location over another.

When announcing the certified site, Becker Mayor Tracy Bertram said, “The Business Park is the catalyst for our future in Becker. We’re preparing for the changes not only for our existing businesses, but we have been preparing for what new businesses need to conduct their business. We are planning for the future and hope you will come to Becker to expand your reach in central Minne­sota, the Twin Cities, and beyond.”

For Becker, its proximity to the Twin Cities and its available land make it a prime region for a rail-served industrial park to recruit businesses that will help grow the local economy. In more urban areas, the consideration ought to be how best to preserve existing rail access amid redevelopment. In both cases, jobs follow, bringing workers who frequent those coffee shops and breweries.

Justin Pearson is regional manager, economic development, with BNSF Railway ( BNSF is a member of the League’s Business Leadership Council (