After months of delay, a group of regional leaders is expected to vote Wednesday on the biggest flashpoint of the proposed Southwest light rail project -- what to do with existing freight trains in the Kenilworth Corridor of Minneapolis.
The question has bogged down plans for what would be the state's largest building project.
Engineers with the Metropolitan Council favor keeping the freight running through a scenic part of Minneapolis and send passenger trains underground through shallow tunnels.
If the plan is approved, the fate of the Twin Cities' third light rail line could be in the hands of the Minneapolis City Council.
Today, the Corridor Management Committee, a group of regional leaders that includes elected officials, is expected to recommend the tunnel option, which would keep the freight in Minneapolis. The alternative is to divert the freight trains through St. Louis Park.
But residents of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park are opposed to having freight trains in their community, and the opposition is so strong that many observers say no matter what the Met Council decides, the entire $1.55 billion project could be in trouble. Under state law, the project must seek unanimous approval from all five cities touching the line that would link Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
Now that the tunnel option appears to be advancing, some Minneapolis City Council members already say that option won't fly.
"As I see it playing out, they pick any co-location option, and it's going to come to us, and we're gonna say 'no,'" said council member Lisa Goodman, who represents Kenilworth, a bucolic corridor popular with bicyclists and joggers.
Last week Goodman told her fellow council members that the Met Council's project lacks the city's support for what's known as "co-location" -- keeping the freight in the corridor and adding light rail.
"I can count. You can count. We can all count," she said. "Many of us have told the Met Council what the vote count is."
“This isn't the program that was on the table 17 years ago, I understand... But in many ways, it's actually better for the community than that one was.”Todd Klingel, Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce
Many council members oppose the plan because they say it violates a nearly decades-old understanding that freight trains would be rerouted to St. Louis Park once light rail came.
However, some business and civic leaders are nevertheless behind it.
"This isn't the program that was on the table 17 years ago, I understand," said Todd Klingel, president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. "But in many ways, it's actually better for the community than that one was."
That's because the tunnels will keep the LRT trains mostly hidden from view, Klingel said. If Southwest planners choose re-routing the freight, that plan would keep light rail trains -- about 220 a day -- above ground and visible through the entire Kenilworth corridor.
Klingel and the head of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce sent a letter last week to Minneapolis City Council members and other regional leaders urging them to pick the tunnel option. Klingel said if the project falls through, he worries what it'll mean for future transit endeavors and the regional economy.
"If we can't get Southwest through, what happens to Bottineau?" he asked of an light rail line that would be built later to Brooklyn Park. "Eighty percent of the people on transit are going to work or school so they can be prepared for work. We need for them to be able to get there."
Others also are focusing on Minneapolis.
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said City Council members have legitimate concerns, and it's important to give them reassurances that will help them say "yes."
McLaughlin said resistance from private railroad companies have left elected officials with no good options for re-routing the freight.
"There are people in the city -- City Council members -- who are unhappy and angry about that," he said. "Having said that, they also need to understand we don't have a lot of options, so they need to step back in this leadership moment and decide how they're going to vote."
But one thing officials don't want to talk about is what happens if Minneapolis refuses to sign onto the Southwest project.
The state statute requires the lead planning agency -- in this case the Met Council -- to seek municipal consent. But it doesn't say whether the project can still advance even after a community rejects the plan.
When asked about that, Met Council Chairwoman Sue Haigh did not give a clear answer.
"The process calls for deep engagement with the communities, and we want to get the support of each of the communities," she said.
Although today's vote from the advisory board of mostly suburban officials is expected to be in favor of the tunnels, everyone will be listening intently to one voting member: Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.
The mayor has been a champion of Southwest but has expressed grave concerns about the planning process.
Rybak spokesman John Stiles said late Monday that the mayor would support the project's route only if "all the other options have been looked at thoroughly. As of today, that's not the case."