Southwest light rail, decade into planning, keeps hitting resistance

Proposed Southwest LRT route map
This map shows the proposed route of the Southwest Light Rail Transit line.
Courtesy Metropolitan Council

Several months of delay and additional study don't appear to have softened the positions of some Minneapolis residents who oppose the idea of running both light rail and freight trains in their cherished Kenilworth Corridor.

That Southwest light rail proposal got another town hall hearing Monday night in the state's largest city, this time to learn more about two draft studies commissioned by the Metropolitan Council.

Skeptical residents again took the opportunity to grill planners. And as the Met Council moves closer to a crucial vote on the project, many of those critics continue to make a plea: Change the route designed to run from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

"At every single meeting, the community input has been, 'The alignment is wrong.' We do not feel heard."

The sentiment voiced by some of the frustrated Minneapolis residents resurfaced near the end of the three-hour meeting, when Margaret Telfer stood up from her metal folding chair and suggested the whole Southwest project needed to be rethought.

"At every one of these meetings, somebody gets up and says, 'We want community input,' and at every single meeting, the community input has been, 'The alignment is wrong.' We do not feel heard. You are not listening. So we're all wasting our time," she said.

Telfer and others sharing her point of view wanted to know from the Met Council engineers and officials: Was there any hope that they'd consider a different route? One, they said, that could serve denser areas of the city and keep the park-like Kenilworth Corridor untouched?

The answer, again and again, was no.

"You know, we've been at this process for well over a decade, trying to pick this alignment."

"You know, we've been at this process for well over a decade, trying to pick this alignment," said Met Council Chairwoman Sue Haigh, pointing out that planners eliminated others options that were too costly or disruptive to communities. Haigh urged everyone to stay focused on the more immediate question at hand: What to do with existing freight traffic?

"We have this one remaining issue that we need to resolve on this project before we can get it going, but think that this alignment for this mode is the right one," she said.

The freight issue has been a roadblock to building the state's largest public-works project, estimated to end up costing at least $1.5-billion. Neither Minneapolis nor St. Louis Park wants the freight trains that currently run through Kenilworth.

The standoff prompted Gov. Mark Dayton to slow down the process in October to give the project planners more time to build consensus.

Parks and trails advocate George Puzak
Parks and trails advocate George Puzak holds a sign at a town hall meeting on the Southwest light rail project Monday night in Minneapolis. Puzak wants the Metropolitan Council to reconsider burying the trains in a deep-bore tunnel in the Kenilworth Corridor. That idea was rejected in the planning process due to cost.
Laura Yuen/MPR News

That's when the Met Council commissioned a study to examine other possible re-routing of freight traffic. A consultant found that keeping the freight traffic in Kenilworth could work. It also identified a possible new way to divert the freight through St. Louis Park.

Then a second draft study looked at the environmental effects of a plan to keep the freight trains where they are, in Kenilworth. The engineering consultants concluded that the Met Council's proposal of burying the light rail trains in shallow tunnels would have minimal impact on groundwater and nearby lakes.

Met Council member Jennifer Munt says it was important for the study to be done, "To give assurances that if the shallow tunnels are chosen, that it won't harm our lakes. We now know that doesn't."

But that finding confounded Minneapolis resident Susu Jeffrey.

"I'm looking at this and see water hitting a wall. I wonder where that water is going to go? What's that going to do to the surrounding water pressure? There are rain events we can't even imagine," she said. "I don't know. I think nature bats last."

The hydrology report called for a second phase of study, but some residents questioned why the further analysis would come only after the five cities touching the light rail line are asked to provide what's known as municipal consent on the project.

And on Wednesday, council representatives will hear from another impassioned group: residents of St. Louis Park who are vigorously fighting efforts to push the freight trains to their town.

The Met Council is expected to decide where the freight lines will go in March.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.