Costs kill deep tunnel idea in Southwest Corridor rail project


Light-rail officials today on Wednesday essentially killed one of three remaining proposals for solving a major impasse on the Southwest rail project to run from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

An advisory board for the project agreed to ditch the deep-tunnel option, as it was known, citing the tunnel's exhorbitant costs.

That leaves just two options on the table for planners who are trying to squeeze light-rail, freight rail and recreational trails into a narrow stretch of the corridor in southwest Minneapolis. But the two proposals are equally contentious, and questions about them are delaying key decisions yet again.

The proposed behemoth, $330 million subway tunnel fell to its knees with a nearly unanimous decision by mayors, county commissioners and other officials on the Corridor Management Committee. They agreed to abandon it just two weeks after five metro counties who are expected to fund nearly a third of the project threatened to withdraw their support.

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Now estimated to cost at least about a $1.5 billion, Southwest would be the state's most expensive public works project.

Eliminating the deep tunnel at this point doesn't mean it's permanently dead; the committee can only make recommendations to the Metropolitan Council. But Met Council Chairwoman Sue Haigh says she's encouraged by the development.

"This is all advisory to the council, so the council has to make a decision. But I think this was an important decision. I think it narrowed the alternatives, and I think it's progress."

The subway tunnel was staunchly favored by some Minneapolis residents who live near the wooded Kenilworth corridor.

Stuart Chazin, who heads the Kenilworth Preservation Group, said his group might sue over the project. He considers Kenilworth an urban forest that represents the very best of region's park and trail system.

"There's over a million people who use the Kenilworth corridor on a yearly basis," Chazin said. "Would you put light rail through Central Park? No, I don't think so. And this is what people think of Kenilworth corridor: It's probably one of the most beautiful areas in the city where you bike ride. This is not about rich people wanting LRT out of their neighborhoods or backyards. It's about preserving one of the most beautiful areas in the city, if not the state."

The remaining two options light-rail planners are considering are building a cheaper, shallower light-rail tunnel in Kenilworth, or rerouting freight traffic through St. Louis Park.

Many officials on the advisory committee consider the current freight reroute option unseemly. That's because to satisfy the safety concerns of a railroad, it would place the trains on berms as tall as two stories high near an elementary school.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin likened the berms to a massive levee on the Mississippi River. And fellow commissioner Gail Dorfman, a former mayor of St. Louis Park, says the plan isn't viable.

Minneapolis' representative on the advisory board is Peter Wagenius. He's the policy director for Mayor R.T. Rybak. Wagenius says Rybak agreed to walk away from the deep tunnel option only on condition that planners explore all options to reroute the freight through St. Louis Park. Wagenius is skeptical that those distasteful berms are truly needed.

"We need to push back against the desires of the railroad to have a Rolls Royce version of freight rerouting that allows them to expand capacity," Wagenius said. "We don't have confidence that railroads are getting what they need. It seems right now they're getting what they want."

The Twin Cities and Western Railroad Company has said that the berms are needed to bring the trains along a more gradual slope to prevent the risk of derailment.

The Met Council is exploring an additional independent study to look at how to reroute the freight traffic, including revisiting old alignments that the railroad has already deemed unsafe.

Jake Spano, a city council member from St. Louis Park, said he doubts the 11th-hour analysis will produce any new epiphanies. "I would fully expect after years of study and millions of dollars worth of consultants, this consultant is going to corroborate that information," he said. "I just can't imagine in a week to two week period, something will come up that will radically change what we understand."

Critics of the project are just as skeptical. Adam Platt, editor of the Twin Cities Business Magazine, tweeted that the quest for a new freight route was a "hail Mary. There are no other options."

The additional freight study, along with an independent report on how the project would affect the nearby lakes, will buy some more time for light-rail planners. Those studies will push off some key decisions from the Met Council by at least two weeks. The council could take a final vote on the project scope and budget as early as October 9.