Mayor Rybak calls for Southwest light rail consensus

Hoping to find a way forward for the Southwest light rail project, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak on Friday renewed his call for a new Metropolitan Council study examining all options to re-route freight rail traffic from the Kenilworth Corridor.

The head of the Met Council, however, said more study is not a "viable option."

Rybak has been meeting with City Council members, Met Council officials and state lawmakers in an effort to find common ground on the $1.55 billion Southwest LRT project, which would be the priciest-ever transit project in Minnesota.

Plans remain stuck on the freight rail question. Met Council engineers are pressing to run the light rail trains underground in a shallow tunnel through the scenic and narrow Kenilworth Corridor of Minneapolis. A second alternative would divert freight traffic in that corridor to St. Louis Park and keep the light rail above ground.

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On Wednesday, Twin Cities leaders delayed a crucial decision on the matter to give Rybak and others time to build consensus. Many city council members oppose a plan to run light rail underground through the Kenilworth Corridor, which is already home to freight trains and a bike trail.

"The mayor's very keen to find an agreement that he, the city council, and the city of Minneapolis can live with," Rybak spokesman John Stiles said.

The Met Council had invited a Colorado-based consulting firm to study alternatives to rerouting the freight last month, but the company backed out after citing a conflict of interest. The council has no plans to hire another firm to conduct the analysis.

"Our position is the Met Council promised the study and should deliver it," Stiles said.

When asked what would happen if the Met Council doesn't do so, he said, "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

If no agreement can be reached on the freight-rail impasse, city officials have suggested that Southwest planners consider a new light-rail alignment. But Met Council chairwoman Sue Haigh said that would delay the project by at least one or two years and send the price tag to soar even higher.

Haigh told MPR's "The Daily Circuit" she empathizes with city officials who assumed the freight trains would be relocated once light-rail came to the Kenilworth Corridor.

Planning for the project has been fair and transparent, she said.

"It's a difficult decision," Haigh added. "I hope when all is said and done, and they look at this investment, and they see how important this is for the future of the region, they'll say, 'We can go ahead and consent to this project.'"

The Southwest project needs the blessing of Minneapolis and four additional cities.