Light rail plan rankles some on Minneapolis City Council

Southwest LRT
This photograph shows one of the "pinch points" along the Kenilworth Corridor in Minneapolis where townhomes are close to the train tracks Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. Planners with the Metropolitan Council have recommended that the project route the LRT trains in shallow tunnels along the scenic corridor
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Minneapolis City Council members are fighting back against a likely solution to an impasse along the Southwest light rail line.

Planners with the Metropolitan Council have recommended that the project route the LRT trains in shallow tunnels along the scenic Kenilworth Corridor in Minneapolis.

But the plan offends several city council members, including mayoral candidate Betsy Hodges. She said the planning process for the project is "almost scandalously flawed" and would like to explore other light rail routes.

"Let's take the time to ask the question: Is this the best project we can get for $1.5 billion?" Hodges said. "And I'm going to say right now I'm not asking the Met Council that question. I don't think that in the situation we have right now, asking these kinds of questions from people who are clearly invested in one answer is going to get us the result that we need."

"We're not going to sit by quietly and let them shove this down our throats and have every 'politerati' person in town telling us how we killed Southwest LRT."

The project's new cost estimate is $1.56 billion, up from the earlier $1.25 billion estimate that did not include any cost to address the location of freight rail in the corridor.

In 2011, the Federal Transit Administration directed the Metropolitan Council to study options to keep freight rail in the LRT route through the Kenilworth neighborhood of Minneapolis in addition to studying how to reroute freight trains to St. Louis Park, adding the cost of dealing with freight rail to the LRT project.

Mark Fuhrmann, director of light rail development for the Met Council, said putting the light rail line in shallow tunnels would not require the project to acquire any homes or businesses and help preserve the Kenilworth Trail.

"The shallow tunnel option is the best option because it ensures conditions in the Kenilworth neighborhood will be the most similar to existing conditions today."

Another council member threatened a lawsuit over the plan.

Lisa Goodman said the proposal to bury the passenger trains won't secure the needed votes from the council. The project needs the consent of neighboring communities to move forward.

"We're not invested in defending a flawed process," Goodman said. "We're not going to sit by quietly and let them shove this down our throats and have every 'politerati' person in town telling us how we killed Southwest LRT."

Southwest LRT
This photograph shows one of the "pinch points" along the trail where townhomes are close to the train tracks Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. In 2011, the Federal Transit Administration directed the Metropolitan Council to study options to keep freight rail in the LRT route through the Kenilworth neighborhood of Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Goodman said the Metropolitan Council needs to do more analysis on relocating the existing freight traffic in Kenilworth. But the Met Council's plan for such a study fell through after a rail consultant backed out.

An advisory board for the Southwest project will vote Wednesday on whether to accept the tunnel option, or redirect the freight through St. Louis Park.

Met Council planners say the project needs to stay on schedule so that construction can begin in 2015. A delay would add about $50 million to the project's cost each year, Fuhrmann said.

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