Planning woes raise SW light rail costs, delay opening to at least 2019

The Southwest light rail line won't open until 2019 -- or possibly 2021-- and costs will run significantly higher than initial estimates.

The new timeline accounts for delays in planning the passenger service from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, officials said Wednesday. The Metropolitan Council originally hoped to start service from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie in late 2018.

But planning has been mired for months as the Met Council tries to get the blessings of both Minneapolis and St. Louis Park. Neither city wants to be stuck with the freight traffic that currently runs through the Kenilworth Corridor of Minneapolis.

If the Met Council decides to build an LRT tunnel under a popular water channel in Minneapolis, it would push the project's start date to 2020.

Met Council staff offered more details Wednesday on how they'd build that tunnel. But Peter Wagenius, policy director for Mayor Betsy Hodges, says city officials still have concerns with the so-called "chunnel." Due to inflation and capital costs, the chunnel -- also known as the "deep-shallow tunnel," as transit planners have struggled to name it -- could bring the overall project price tag to about $1.7 billion, well above the earlier estimate of $1.55 billion.

The new design would require even more invasive construction methods than an earlier plan that the city council has opposed, Wagenius said, adding, "I can't conceive why the city's position would change based on the information that's been provided."

Wagenius sits on an advisory council that will vote next week on where to put freight trains that currently run through Kenilworth. An option to divert the freight through St. Louis Park looks increasingly unlikely because of opposition from a railroad company. The work required for that option would push the line's date back to 2021.

Metro leaders who advise the project and the full Met Council will vote next month on how to resolve the freight quandary. They could reaffirm a recommendation from last fall to send the passenger trains underneath the Kenilworth corridor in "shallow tunnels," at a cost of roughly $1.6 billion with a scheduled opening date of 2019.

The planning delays are hurting the Twin Cities in the race with other cities for limited federal transit dollars, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin warned.

"We dither at our peril. People need to understand, we're talking about half the money for the project," McLaughlin said. "If we don't move forward, people will pass us."

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