Southwest Light Rail's fate has hinged on Kenilworth freight route for almost two decades

Southwest LRT
Some residents oppose a plan to co-locate both light rail and freight traffic along the Kenilworth corridor that currently is used by bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as freight trains. This photograph shows one of the "pinch points" along the trail where townhomes are close to the train tracks Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The quandary over what to do with freight trains that currently use a portion of the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit route goes nearly two decades.

Today, the freight-rail impasse has sent the transit project's price tag - now estimated at about $1.6 billion or more - galloping way ahead of initial estimates.

It also pits neighbors near the Chain of Lakes of Minneapolis, told by local officials that the freight would eventually leave the wooded Kenilworth corridor, against St. Louis Park residents who oppose any attempts to divert the trains through their community.

Interactive timeline of the Southwest LRT freight rail debate

The freight fracas has forced officials to delay key decisions in the planning on the proposed line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.

With the fate of what would be the state's most expensive public-works project now teetering on uncertainty, much of the debate centers on one question: Did the city of St. Louis Park ever agree to accept the freight?

Proposed rail line
A train runs through a neighborhood in St. Louis Park, Minn. March 5, 2012. The proposed Southwest light rail line route could divert additional freight trains on the tracks running through St. Louis Park.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Government documents going back nearly two decades stop short of spelling out any legal promises, but city and Hennepin County officials held serious discussions on the matter.

The chain reaction culminating with the project's current woes started in the 1990s. That's when transportation officials severed the 29th Street freight corridor in Minneapolis - what is now the Midtown Greenway - to reconstruct Hiawatha Avenue, long before the state's first light-rail service began on Hiawatha.

Freight service was rerouted along the Kenilworth corridor, between two of the most cherished lakes in Minneapolis - Cedar and Lake of the Isles - and now home to one of the most scenic bikeways in the region.

But the new freight service through Kenilworth came with a catch, recalled Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman.

"Everybody back then - in St. Louis Park, in Minneapolis, the railroads, MnDot - everybody understood at that point that the intent was that the trains would be in the Kenilworth corridor on a temporary basis," said Dorfman, who was mayor of St. Louis Park at the time. "Was it legally binding? I don't know. I'm not an attorney."

As Dorfman and other county officials remember it, all of the parties agreed the trains would weave through Kenilworth until a piece of land in St. Louis Park that previously housed a lead smelter could be cleaned up.

Neighborhood tracks
Michael Meverden walks his dog over train tracks in his St. Louis Park, Minn. neighborhood March 5, 2012. The proposed Southwest light rail line route could divert additional freight trains on the tracks running through St. Louis Park.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Once the land was reclaimed, a new rail interconnect would be built on the former National Lead site. That would allow the freight trains to be diverted through St. Louis Park, Dorfman said.

In 1997, the Legislature passed a law that allowed St. Louis Park to accept money from a new Hennepin County cleanup fund if the city agreed to acquire the contaminated site and provide a rail right-of-way to replace the 29th Street corridor. The city eventually received $4.75 million from the special fund, and set aside an easement for a future freight rail connection, as the state statute mandated.

DIFFERENT RECOLLECTIONS IN ST. LOUIS PARK

By cleaning up the site and reserving the easement, St. Louis Park has held up its end of the deal, said Sue Sanger, a city council member who was involved in early discussions about the possible freight relocation.

Sanger points to a 1998 preliminary agreement between the city and the county that offers the clearest picture of where the discussions were headed. It notes that city wanted the land for redevelopment, while the county wanted it for the freight route.

"The city agreed to look at the question of whether freight could be rerouted through St. Louis Park," she said. "We honored that agreement. We did study it. We concluded it should not be."

But the preliminary agreement was just the starting point for exploring the freight relocation, Sanger said.

"The city agreed to look at the question of whether freight could be rerouted through St. Louis Park...We honored that agreement. We did study it. We concluded it should not be."

The agreement never obligated the city to take the freight as a condition of accepting the cleanup money, Sanger said.

"While it may have been the understanding that some people at the county wanted to have, that certainly was not the understanding in St. Louis Park," she said.

The contract also stipulated several conditions that needed to happen before the parties could negotiate a final agreement. Those conditions included securing approval from the affected railroads and consulting nearby neighborhoods.

"None of that was ever pursued," said Jake Spano, a St. Louis Park city council member who has been involved with recent Southwest LRT planning. "There was never a final agreement."

Nonetheless, some Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials believe St. Louis Park needs to honor what they consider to be a previous commitment.

Minneapolis mayoral candidate Mark Andrew, who chaired the county board in the late '90s, said there's no question about the expected trade-off with St. Louis Park.

" 'You guys clean up the waste site, and we'll figure out a way to get freight rail out there,' is the way I understood it," Andrew said. "But of course, we don't have any contract with them."

He said much of the conversation about what he viewed as a trade happened at the staff level, and there was never a written commitment.

But Andrew said he's confident of one thing: The county lobbied for the environmental cleanup money at the Capitol on behalf of St. Louis Park thinking the suburb would ultimately accept the freight.

Signs of opposition
Residents along Blackstone Avenue display signs opposing the diversion of freight trains through their community in St. Louis Park, Minn. March 5, 2012. The proposed Southwest light rail line route could divert the freight traffic.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"Of course," he said. "That's why we did it."

Officials in Minneapolis share that recollection. Peter Wagenius, policy director for Mayor R.T. Rybak, went so far at a recent Southwest planning meeting to suggest St. Louis Park pay for its opposition to freight.

Wagenius said the $4.75 million the city accepted for the National Lead cleanup should be repaid to the light-rail project in today's dollars if the Metropolitan Council decides against rerouting the freight trains through the suburb.

"If we pursue that option, then that money - money not spent in ancient times, but in our lifetimes - was not going to the purpose it was meant for," Wagenius said.

OTHER 'VIABLE OPTIONS'

St. Louis Park leaders maintain they've been consistent all along on their opposition to freight.

They point to city resolutions going back to 2001 documenting that St. Louis Park would only accept the trains if there were no viable options that accommodated both freight and transit within the Kenilworth Corridor.

St. Louis Park officials contend there are plenty of other options - at least six that were identified by Met Council planners - that would not involve diverting additional freight through the suburb. Light-rail planners ruled out four due to opposition from Minneapolis, including relocating Kenilworth's picturesque bike trail.

"There are many more viable, and frankly cheaper, routes for handling freight rail that still permits light-rail transit to be built," said Sue Sanger, the St. Louis Park city council member.

Light rail open house
About 100 people gathered Thursday, June 13, 2013, in St. Louis Park to view and discuss ways the Southwest Light Rail transit line can exist near freight rail lines.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Now light-rail planners are focused on just one: Burying the passenger trains in a $160 million shallow tunnel that would run beside the freight rail and beneath the bike and walking trails.

That option is not without controversy, either. Some Minneapolis residents believe cramming both freight and LRT trains into Kenilworth would alter the park-like setting of the corridor ( Southwest Light Rail tunnel proposals would remove hundreds of trees).

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board also opposes the shallow tunnel, out of which the trains would emerge to cross the bucolic Kenilworth Channel between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles ( Light-rail tunnel foes see water table, environmental issues).

"From a historic perspective, it could change the experience one has in the Kenilworth Channel significantly," said park board member Anita Tabb. "People ski under that bridge. People canoe that area. You can see all sorts of wildlife. It's quiet. You do not feel like you're in the city at all."

Tabb is also concerned about the tunnel's effect on the nearby lakes and groundwater. A preliminary hydrological report released this week by the engineering consultant for the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District found "no serious concerns" with the tunnel's initial designs.

But the only alternative on the table is a contentious, $200 million rerouting of freight through St. Louis Park that places the trains on two-story-high berms near an elementary school. The berms are intended to provide a gradual slope and safe passage for the trains, but many residents believe they'll divide the community and present even greater risks to safety.

The current reroute plan, which came after the Twin Cities and Western Railroad Co. objected to a previous version because of its steep climbs and sharp turns, also calls for acquiring homes and businesses to make room for the freight trains.

St. Louis Park officials say the new route is starkly different than the freight path they originally envisioned when they entered into the preliminary agreement with the county in 1998.

"We're only now in 2013 seeing solutions that the railroads would find acceptable, and that's very different from the ideas that people were talking about in the 1990s," said Kevin Locke, the city's community development director.

Even Gail Dorfman, the county commissioner, agrees with St. Louis Park residents that the current design won't work.

Southwest LRT
Some residents oppose a plan to co-locate both light rail and freight traffic along the Kenilworth corridor that currently is used by bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as freight trains. This photograph shows one of the "pinch points" along the trail where townhomes are close to the train tracks Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

And all of the sparring over whether St. Louis Park ever agreed to take freight doesn't even matter if planners can't agree on how to route the trains through the city, she said.

The Met Council could decide how to handle the freight debacle as early as Oct. 9. State law requires municipal consent from all five cities touching the line, and Met Council officials want to secure approvals by the end of the year.

"We haven't quite come up with a viable scenario where all of the communities feel like they're fairly sharing the burden," Dorfman said. "That's where we need to focus over the next few weeks. Otherwise, we won't have a project after all of these years."

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