A key sticking point remains in lining up final support for the Southwest light rail line linking downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie: What to do with the freight rail tracks that are along the proposed route. One idea calls for moving those freight trains to St. Louis Park. But some residents opposed to that notion were out in force Wednesday night.
Light rail planners working under the auspices of the Metropolitan Council want to run part of the in the estimated $1.5 billion line through the Kenilworth Corridor -- a stretch of land between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis. Right now there are freight rail tracks there. And next to those tracks is the Kenilworth bike trail. At the point where the trail and tracks cross the channel between the lakes, the right-of-way narrows like the center of an hourglass. In that spot it's too tight to fit light rail, freight rail and the bike path side by side.
One of Met Council's possible solutions to the problem is to reroute the freight trains through St. Louis Park. Brian Zachek,who lives on Minnetonka Boulevard, close to the tracks, says that's a bad idea. Zachek was among hundreds of people who attended a public input session on the project last night at St. Louis Park High School -- which also sits right next to the proposed freight rail route.
Zachek says two short freight trains that go by his house each day aren't too much of a bother. He's concerned that if more freight traffic is added, he could see and hear five to seven much longer trains on a daily basis. He says he supports having light rail service nearby, but not at the expense of his quality of life.
"It takes a lot for a progressive community like St. Louis Park to become so upset about a light rail project. Because normally we would be the first ones to embrace it," he said.
An earlier freight rail relocation plan for St. Louis Park would have put the trains on two-story high berms in some places. The latest proposal shrinks those features. But resident Gail Miller doesn't think that makes them any safer. She lives near the high school, and says she's especially concerned about students crossing the tracks amid frequent freight trains.
"It's going within 50 feet of our high school, between the high school and McDonald's. Do you think that's a safety issue? I do," she said.
Miller and many others at the meeting said that, from their point of view, the most sensible option would be to keep the freight trains in the Kenilworth Corridor in Minneapolis alongside the proposed light rail line, and move the bike trail. Met Council Chair Sue Haigh says that's not as simple as it sounds.
"We'd take additional property. We'd have safety issues on access to that trail. And so really the corridor management committee said the best alternative in the Kenilworth Corridor is put the light rail in the shallow tunnel, keep the freight rail in the corridor, keep the bike trail there," she said.
Earlier in the week, at a similar public hearing in Minneapolis, there was a solid block of residents who oppose the idea of running both light rail and freight trains in their cherished Kenilworth Corridor.
For the light rail project to move forward, all of the communities along the route need to sign off. In urban planning speak, that's called municipal consent. At last night's meeting St. Louis Park Mayor Jeff Jacobs said there's no way the plan will get the city's approval if freight rail relocation is part of the deal.
"It will be difficult for the St. Louis Park City Council to see a path forward to municipal consent. And by difficult I mean the level of difficulty that you might have playing the Hungarian Rhapsody on the piano with a broken hand."
Haigh says the Met Council will continue to take public comment on all the proposals through March 3. She says the full Met Council could vote on the southwest corridor light rail plan by the end of next month.