St. Louis Park residents protest SW light rail plans

Metro Light Rail
A light rail train pulls into the Target Field station as a commuter walks by Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012. This station is planned to connect with the Southwest Corridor LRT, which will connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

As plans for a third light rail line move forward in the Twin Cities, some people who live along the proposed route between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie are concerned about their quality of life.

It was standing room only Wednesday night at St. Louis Park City Hall as residents spoke out against plans for the Southwest Corridor line. But it isn't light rail that worries them, it's heavy freight trains that would be rerouted there.

Just before the second of three public hearings on the line, Jami LaPray stood at a table in the lobby of St. Louis Park City Hall and worked the crowd. She wore a bright orange T-shirt with a graphic of two intersecting train tracks and the name of her grassroots community group, Safety in the Park.

LaPray is quick to say that she wants light rail in St. Louis Park. Her concern is a plan to move more freight trains through town to make way for the new line.

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"When those mile-long trains go by, there'll be six crossings within a two-mile area that'll all be closed simultaneously, cutting off emergency vehicles, making it difficult to move around St. Louis Park," LaPray said. "If the trains happen to be going by when school lets out or is starting, it's going to disrupt bus schedules."

Freight trains already travel through St. Louis Park but they're relatively short ones, about 30 cars long, and they run about twice daily along a connector line. New plans call for four trains a day, at least 50 cars long and possibly longer.

Al Boyce of St. Louis Park also says he supports the Southwest Corridor Light Rail project. But at Wednesday's meeting he stood outside city hall with dozens of other protestors who were upset with the plans.

Boyce lives a block and a half away from the freight lines and said putting longer trains on the existing right of way would be disastrous.

"The railroad that goes through St. Louis Park was never meant for this kind of traffic. It meanders and goes within 50 feet of some homes," Boyce said. "To remediate it properly they would have to take out vast swaths of St. Louis Park homes to make a corridor wide enough for this to occur."

Boyce said an existing right-of-way near Cedar Lake is wide enough for both heavy and light rail, and planners should give that route more consideration. That would keep heavy freight trains in an area that was designed for them and not the heart of St. Louis Park, he said.

But Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said putting a sleek new public transit system alongside lumbering freight trains could create other problems.

"Juxtaposing freight rail and light rail cars, it's very different technology," McLaughlin said. "There are safety standards that make it very difficult to do that. There are park concerns as well."

But nothing is set in stone, said Katie Walker, Southwest Light Rail coordinator for Hennepin County. The plans up for discussion now are merely proposals, she said.

"We want the public to come out, weigh in. What are the impacts, what's the potential mitigation," Walker said. "As the project moves forward, we can figure out what are the best solutions to make sure that we maximize the benefits for this project and we minimize the impacts."

The public will have another chance to comment on the draft environmental impact statement Nov. 29 at Eden Prairie City Hall.

The Southwest Corridor project is expected to cost $1.25 billion, half of which would come from the federal government.

If Congress, and state and local governments OK the money and the Metropolitan Council sorts out the details of which trains go where, the Southwest Corridor light rail line could open in 2018.