TOWN OF RICHMOND -- It seemed oddly appropriate that the Town Hall be so sparsely populated in adherence to COVID protocols for the public hearing in the Town of Richmond.

The few participants who called in thanked board members for their valiant, if in the end futile, efforts over the last year-and-a-half to stop Wisconsin Central Limited, a subsidiary of Canadian National Railroad, from building a massive autoport and intermodal shipping facility.

The real estate, once of prime value to the town and sitting at the gateway to the growing city of New Richmond, will instead become an industrial hub of railway activity distributing thousands of automobiles into the Twin Cities annually and brokering thousands more shipping containers filled with agricultural products between ports from coast to coast.

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The sense of resignation was palpable as supervisors voted unanimously Nov. 17 to adopt Resolution-2020-04 to discontinue a portion of 105th Street, the final action required of the town as spelled out in a settlement agreement with WCL/CN.

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“The settlement agreement states WCL will pay the town $175,000. WCL will reconstruct 105th Street from 170 Avenue north past New Richmond Auto Salvage where there will be a cul-de-sac. They will reconstruct the road early spring. They also agreed to berm the facility, plant trees on the berm and lower the lights from 100 feet to 80 feet. Only emergency vehicles will be able to use their road to serve the residents in that area,” Town Chairman Gary Knutson explained.

Track inside the CN autoport/intermodal facility awaits connection via a spur to the mainline track Nov. 23, 2020, near New Richmond, Wisconsin, . Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia
Track inside the CN autoport/intermodal facility awaits connection via a spur to the mainline track Nov. 23, 2020, near New Richmond, Wisconsin, . Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia

The odyssey to stop the railroad began with a phone call between Knutson and CN officials in May 2019. Over the course of the next 18 months, the town would join forces with New Richmond and St. Croix County in and out of court to attempt to stop CN/WCL from building the massive asphalt complex. In the end, the town would accrue more than $156,000 in legal fees taking the battle all the way to the Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Railroads where the arcane legal standing of railroads would trump all of the zoning, economic and common sense appeals brought by the community coalition.

Exhausted and beyond frustrated, the town’s only solace might be found in the lessons it can impart to the next community to come up against a railroad project in its backyard.

Chris Hungerbuhler, project engineer for CN, informed Knutson the intermodal operation of the facility will begin in March 2021. He also said CN has an agreement in place with General Motors for the autoport and that operation is expected to start up next spring.