Planners: Shallow tunnels are best option for SW light rail in Minneapolis' Kenilworth

The Kenilworth corridor narrows
The Kenilworth corridor narrows where it crosses the channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake in Minneapolis. The bike trail is on the left and the freight tracks on the right. Planners are considering putting the light rail in shallow tunnels in this area, which would allow the bike trail and freight lines to remain.
Matt Sepic / MPR News

As anyone who watches soap operas surely knows, it's possible to skip six months of episodes and not miss much.

Observers of the Southwest light rail project might be also be left with the impression that, months later, nothing seems to have changed.

On Monday, the staff of the Metropolitan Council released its recommendation to keep freight trains in the Kenilworth Corridor of Minneapolis by burying the light rail trains in shallow tunnels, rather than diverting the freight trains to St. Louis Park.

The recommendation contained the same conclusion reached by the project staff and an advisory board in October, before Gov. Mark Dayton ordered the Met Council to slow the planning and build more consensus with infuriated city leaders in Minneapolis.

ā€¢ Feb. 11: Southwest light rail, decade into planning, keeps hitting resistance

An advisory board of metro leaders will vote Wednesday on the plan to use the tunnels. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin rejects the idea that the project is at the same place as it was last fall.

"The basic recommendation is the same, but this is a democratic process, a community process," McLaughlin said. "We now have a study of freight, a study of water impacts, and a study of the landscaping around the alternative of the shallow tunnel. So we're not voting on what we voted on six months ago. We're voting on a new reality ā€” a better-informed reality."

An independent study commissioned by the Met Council found that the tunnels would have little impact on nearby lakes.

Another study found that the freight train traffic could be safely diverted to St. Louis Park. But the light rail planners determined it would cost more and delay construction. Met Council Chairwoman Sue Haigh said opposition from a railroad made the reroute a long shot.

"Listening to all that, we went back and said, 'We really did turn over every stone," Haigh said. "We looked to see if there was any other alternative that would work and said, 'The shallow tunnel in the Kenilworth corridor is the best alternative to advance this incredibly important project for our region.'"

Dayton said that the extra public engagement and outside analysis were "absolutely necessary." In a statement, the governor said he only wished that early planners of the Southwest light rail project foresaw the problems at the beginning, rather than the end, of the planning process. The project is expected to cost nearly $1.7 billion, and delays have pushed the completion date to 2019 at the earliest.

The staff recommendation also rejects an 11th-hour design proposal that would have taken the light-rail trains underneath a popular kayaking channel rather than above it, across a new bridge.

That also would have required more time and money to build, Haigh said.

"It's also something we haven't heard...people to say, 'We really, really, really want that,'" she said.

Last week, Park Board Commissioner Anita Tabb said the construction methods for building any kind of shallow tunnel could destroy the park-like corridor she's trying to preserve.

"It's incredibly invasive, incredibly invasive," Tabb said. "And frankly, it sort of denudes the area. It's just like strip-mining the area, and I find that pretty offensive because it's right next to park land."

Federal transportation policies allow the park board to challenge projects that go through park land. That makes the park board and the city of Minneapolis formidable opponents if they fail to consent to the project.

The Met Council wants to secure the blessings of all the affected cities, including the largest city in the state, by late June. Behind the scenes, project partners say if Minneapolis still isn't on board, the Met Council has the power to override the city's wishes.

At Wednesday's vote of metro leaders, many expect Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges to cast the lone dissenting vote against the tunnels, just as her predecessor, R.T. Rybak, did last fall.

Confused by the tunnel issues surrounding Southwest light rail? Check out this MPR News video:

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the Metropolitan Council's recommendation. The current version is correct.

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