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Southwest metro light rail decision postponed again

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St. Louis Park Ground Zero Coalition
Members of the St. Louis Park Ground Zero Coalition protested Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, at a Southwest light rail advisory committee meeting. The Ground Zero group opposed the option of rerouting freight train traffic from the scenic Kenilworth Corridor of Minneapolis to St. Louis Park to make way for the light rail.
MPR Photo/Liala Helal

An advisory committee for the Southwest Corridor light rail project postponed a vote Wednesday on how to resolve a longstanding dispute that continues to threaten the future of the line.

With pressure to get the ball rolling on what would be the state's most expensive public works project, the Corridor Management Committee will revisit the issue that has held up the process -- whether to recommend running the light rail trains underground in a shallow tunnel through the scenic and narrow Kenilworth Corridor of Minneapolis, or to divert and reroute freight traffic in that corridor to St. Louis Park and keep the light rail above ground.

The panel's recommendation is expected next week after committee members, which include metro mayors and county officials, have a chance to discuss concerns about the shallow tunnel with Minneapolis and other groups. Metropolitan Council staff on Tuesday recommended the shallow tunnel option.

Met Council chairwoman Susan Haigh said the shallow tunnel option is best because it preserves the Kenilworth Corridor's green space and bike trails, while still providing access to transit. It's also cheaper than the reroute. The tunnel costs $160 million, bringing the total cost of the project to about $1.55 billion.

Minneapolis city leaders are opposed to the shallow tunnel because it keeps freight train traffic in the narrow corridor --- citing a promise from St. Louis Park 17 years ago to move freight trains from that corridor of bike trails and pedestrian traffic.

Ground Zero Coalition
Members of the St. Louis Park Ground Zero Coalition protested Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, at a Southwest light rail advisory committee meeting. The Ground Zero group opposed the option of rerouting freight train traffic from the scenic Kenilworth Corridor of Minneapolis to St. Louis Park to make way for the light rail.
MPR Photo/Liala Helal

"We want you to know that it's a very sad, very disappointing day for the constituents (of Minneapolis)," said advisory committee member Peter Wagenius, who works in Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak's office. "Some are longtime residents who feel like they've been misled for the past 17 years."

Wagenius accused St. Louis Park of reneging on what he says was a promise to one day take the freight in exchange for receiving millions of dollars in cleanup money for a polluted site in the city.

St. Louis Park maintains it has fulfilled all of its obligations.

Speaking for the mayor, Wagenius said Rybak has always pushed for Southwest LRT.

"Mayor Rybak is less prone to regret than anyone I've ever known. But his biggest regret is his faith in (Southwest) LRT. It flunks the fairness test. It breaks promises to Minneapolis," said Wagenius. "This project suffers from 17 years worth of failure to factor in the freight."

He added that the remaining two options for routing light rail through Kenilworth -- the shallow tunnel or rerouting freight on two-story berms to St. Louis Park -- "are not a representation of a fair and transparent process."

"They are simply what's left from a flawed process," Wagenius said as some in the packed room of community members applauded.

St. Louis Park Ground Zero Coalition
Members of the St. Louis Park Ground Zero Coalition protested Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, at a Southwest light rail advisory committee meeting. The Ground Zero group opposed the option of rerouting freight train traffic from the scenic Kenilworth Corridor of Minneapolis to St. Louis Park to make way for the light rail.
MPR Photo/Liala Helal

A study that Minneapolis was hoping for that would explore alternatives to running freight trains on elevated tracks through St. Louis Park fell through when the railroad consulting firm hired by the Met Council, Colorado-based Transportation Technology Center, Inc., cited a conflict of interest. St. Louis Park residents and interest groups strongly opposed the reroute, citing safety concerns.

Jake Spano, St. Louis Park city councilmember and advisory committee member, said there's no need to explore other reroute options. "We've ruled out an independent analysis --- this reroute is not a viable option," he said. "At some point, we have to trust the team we've got in the room."

Minneapolis City Councilmember Lisa Goodman on Tuesday threatened a lawsuit over the project because the Met Council is not conducting a study to explore other options for rerouting the freight rail traffic. Met Council chairwoman Susan Haigh said Wednesday that the committee will not conduct a study, despite Minneapolis leaders' concerns.

Wagenius said it doesn't make sense to postpone the vote, while at the same time committee members say they can't conduct a study because they are fighting against the clock.

"I was under the impression that we were on a hard deadline, and that's why the Met Council couldn't hire a consultant," Wagenius said. "And now we're delaying again."

Approval from all communities along the line is needed before the project moves forward.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the world has changed since promises between St. Louis Park and Minneapolis were made 17 years ago, and that the committee has been operating in good faith. He added that the private railroad company has not made the process easy, which is something he wants to educate communities along the line about. That's one reason he wanted to postpone the committee's vote.

"We need to have reassurances to the cities involved (regarding the shallow tunnel option)," McLaughlin said. "There's the complicated circumstance of the lack of cooperation from the railroad. People need to understand that situation. This is complex, and when the railroad stiffed us when we were trying to consider our real options with freight, we weren't left with any real options."

Haigh said the final council vote originally planned for Oct. 9 will also be pushed back by a week. The advisory committee's recommendation will be presented to the council for a vote.

Protestors with Ground Zero Coalition held up signs against the reroute at Wednesday's meeting.

"We've been fighting against this for 16 years to keep the freight (in Minneapolis)," said Ground Zero Coalition Organizer Jeff Roy. "It doesn't make sense to reroute it from Kenilworth to St. Louis Park at the expense of the homes taken, quality of life, and safety of our children."

He said although the committee was considering recommending the shallow tunnel option instead, his group will not rest until that is a done deal.

"We don't trust that until the decision is finally made that the freight rail will stay in Kenilworth," he said. "We're going to make sure. We're going to be here until the very last dog is shot. Until the cows come home."