Southwest light rail committee recommends shallow tunnel through scenic corridor

Kenilworth bike trail
A biker uses the Kenilworth bike trail alongside freight tracks Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013.
MPR Photo/Liala Helal

An advisory committee for the Southwest light rail project voted today to recommend to the Metropolitan Council that the light rail trains run underground in a shallow tunnel through the scenic and narrow Kenilworth Corridor of Minneapolis.

All but one of the regional leaders present supported the plan, which also would leave freight trains alongside the tunnels. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, the lone "no" vote, pledged to continue to press the railroads to relocate freight traffic out of the Kenilworth Corridor, a scenic area that includes bicycle trails.

"I've thought very hard about this, and [the no vote] is not something I have celebrated in the least," Rybak said. "But it's a constructive 'no.' We have not exhausted all options for the railroad to finally follow through on their promise.

"I want to support this project in the worst possible way. But right now this is not the best possible way to do it." Now that the Corridor Management Committee has cast its long-awaited vote, the non-binding recommendation moves to the full Met Council for a final vote next week. If the council approves, that would push the more than $1.5 billion project — the most expensive public-works project in the state — over a significant hurdle.

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Competing options for what to do with freight lines in the Kenilworth Corridor sparked a dispute between Minneapolis, St. Louis Park and the Twin Cities & Western Railroad Co. for several months.

Minneapolis city officials say St. Louis Park officials and the railroad agreed 17 years ago to allow freight trains to run through St. Louis Park after land that previously housed a lead smelter was decontaminated.

St. Louis Park officials say the city has fulfilled its obligation to study the idea but never agreed to accept the freight.

Some St. Louis Park residents are concerned that rerouted freight lines, which would run on two-story berms, are an unsafe option that also would require taking homes and businesses to make way for the freight trains.

The advisory committee, which includes mayors and county officials, last week postponed the vote to try to reassure Minneapolis leaders that the shallow tunnel represents the best option.

Under state law, the Met Council must seek the consent of all five cities on the line before the project moves forward.

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 also is cheaper than the $200 million freight route through St. Louis Park.

Shallow tunnel zone
This is the point where the light rail would begin entering the shallow tunnel, beneath the bike trail, if that option is chosen.
MPR Photo/Liala Helal

Met Council planners last week recommended the shallow tunnel option, which costs $160 million.

Rybak and some Minneapolis City Council members are critical of private railroad companies. Some committee members say the companies left the project with no good options for diverting the freight to St. Louis Park as it was once envisioned.

"Maybe it was crazy to trust the railroads and maybe I was naive, but I always believed the railroads were at the table negotiating in good faith," Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said. "Now I'm not so sure."

The railroads essentially have veto power over any plan to re-route freight traffic. Twin Cities and Western, a small railroad that currently operates freight trains through Kenilworth, has ruled out several proposals to divert the trains to St. Louis Park.

It did approve a proposed freight route that was wildly controversial -- placing the trains on berms more than 20 feet tall, in order to smooth out steep grades. That proposal also would have cost $40 million more than the tunnels. Twin Cities and Western President Mark Wegner disputes that the railroad is out to maximize profits. He said in an interview that the question has always been more about physics than dollars.

"Our focus has been, 'How do we get a re-route that is safe? ' We weren't focusing on economics," he said. "We were strictly focusing on safety."

The resolution approved by the advisory committee includes an amendment to maintain the "character and alignment" of existing Kenilworth trails. Dorfman said she proposed the amendment because "we want to make sure we are protecting the bike trails."

Dorfman said she supports keeping the trails where they are now, but understands that they may have to be tweaked.

Also included in the resolution is a clause recommending that planners "discontinue all work related to freight rail relocation, effective immediately."

St. Louis Park City Council Member Jake Spano said the committee needs to clearly state that it's throwing out the reroute option.

"It's the reality that's in front of us," Spano said. "It's important for us to recognize that we'll make a specific statement to the FTA (Federal Transportation Administration), and that we are clear on it."

Ground Zero protesters
Ground Zero Coalition members protesting outside the Corridor Management Committee meeting, Oct. 9, 2013.
MPR Photo/Liala Helal

Hopkins City Council member Cheryl Youakim agreed. "I want language in here that's going to give St. Louis Park comfort."

When asked after the vote how likely it is that Minneapolis will give its consent to the project, Rybak said he didn't want to speculate.

"We need the dust to settle a little bit," he said.

Rybak said he has long been a supporter of the Southwest light-rail project. But he said planners still have not addressed how the project — and excavation for the tunnels — will affect the channel of lakes around the Kenilworth Corridor. He also said he wants the project "done right."

"I am the mayor of the City of Lakes," Rybak said. "When we are digging tunnels in an area with water flowing in so many directions, I do not believe we have put to bed the question of what impact this could have on the Chain of Lakes."

Despite today's vote, the mayor said he will continue to be involved in the committee's work in the future.

His remarks about the project prompted a response from Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison.

"I have to confess, when I hear 'LRT done right,' I often think, 'LRT done not at all,' " she said.

Callison said she didn't think she could ever support the shallow tunnel, until she decided it was the best option for preserving the existing character of Kenilworth.

"Today it has freight and it has a bike/ped path. And when it is done, it'll have freight, and it'll have a bike/ped path," she said. "And we will have a region that is stronger."

Stronger, she said, because the region will show it can come together for the sake of collective progress.

But that argument doesn't sway everyone.

Courtney Keirnat, a member of LRT Done Right, a group that opposes freight lines along the Kenilworth Corridor, said after the vote that she's disappointed by the vote, but not surprised.

"Minneapolis is being asked to be a regional player, while being forced to take all the burden," she said.

Outside the meeting at the St. Louis Park Recreation Center, the Ground Zero Coalition again held up signs against the planned diversion of freight traffic to St. Louis Park.

"We don't trust the Met Council or the [Corridor Management Committee] to look out for our best interest and take the St. Louis Park reroute off the table," said Jeff Roy, one of the group's coordinators. "Again, we are fighting for quality of life for our city."

The skinny on Southwest light rail

The Southwest LRT line, or green line extension, will run 15.8 miles from Target Field Station in downtown Minneapolis through St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. It will be the third light rail line, following Hiawatha (blue line) and Central Corridor LRT (green line).

Cost: Estimated at more than $1.5 billion - funded by a mix of federal, state and local sources.

Ridership: By 2030, 30,000 rides are expected every weekday, on average.

Travel time: From Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis, about 38 minutes.

Construction: Scheduled to begin in 2015, with service expected to begin in 2018.