Southwest light rail study turns up another option for freight rerouting

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January 30, 2014 // UPDATED 2:11 pm - January 31, 2014
By: Dylan Thomas
Jim Terry of railroad consultant TranSystems.
Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
With its proposal, independent consultant TranSystems addressed some of the issues that raised objections in St. Louis Park

Suddenly, there's another option on the table for Southwest light rail.

An independent consultant's study of freight rail rerouting options has turned up what Minneapolis leaders are calling a viable alternative to keeping a Twin Cities & Western Railroad line in the Kenilworth Corridor by running light rail trains through two shallow tunnels. It may also be cheaper than either the shallow tunnel option or a proposal to re-route freight trains from Kenilworth through St. Louis Park.

The contractor, TranSystems, studied nine different options for freight that had been previously proposed. Then, after its staff members attended community meetings in Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, they drew up their own alternative: a $105-million plan to reroute freight traffic on the Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern, or MN&S, track through St. Louis Park, but on a more northerly route than previously proposed.

Progress on Southwest light rail, a 14.5-mile extension of the soon-to-open Green Line route between Minneapolis and St. Paul, had been hung up for months over the question of what to do with a freight rail line in the Kenilworth Corridor. Freight rail had to move to make room for the light rail line expected to open in 2018, but both options for doing so faced strong opposition.

Burying light rail line in tunnels came with a price tag of $160 million and unanswered questions about the potential impact on water quality in the Chain of Lakes. The Kenilworth Corridor runs between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles, and trains cross a channel that connects the two lakes.

Rerouting freight traffic through St. Louis Park would cost $200 million in track upgrades demanded by Twin Cities & Western. Those upgrades included two-story tall berms, the taking of private property and additional freight traffic.

TranSystems spokesman Jim Terry said their proposal is less expensive and requires much less taking of private property. It would not require berms as tall as those previously proposed, and it added some straight track between the S-curves that rail officials warned were a derailment hazard, Terry said.

Terry, however, cautioned reporters at a State Capitol press conference Thursday that they did not factor in all of the additional costs for the alternative, and that a more detailed estimate would have to come from the Metropolitan Council.

Met Council leaders had been prepared last fall to move ahead on the shallow tunnel plan because of the high cost and other issues with rerouting freight traffic through St. Louis Park. That angered Minneapolis leaders, who said St. Louis Park agreed in the 1990s to accept a rerouting of freight traffic when the Kenilworth Corridor was identified as a future transit corridor.

Former Mayor R.T. Rybak often criticized the original rerouting proposal as a "Cadillac plan" that was much more expensive than it needed to be. It was a meeting in Gov. Mark Dayton's office this fall that led Met Council Chair Sue Haigh to delay a vote and take another look at route options and several other light rail issues.

Asked if the previous proposal was "over-engineered," Terry responded: "Not to speak ill of anybody else, I just wish TranSystems was working on this plan all along."

"By the way, I drive a Cadillac," he quipped.

Mayor Betsy Hodges and policy aide Peter Wagenius attended the press conference. Wagenius also worked closely with Rybak on Southwest light rail.

"A realistic relocation option is on the table, and that's where my focus is going to be," Hodges said.

The other study released Thursday looked at the potential impacts of shallow tunnels on water quality. That would be a moot point if Met Council, Minneapolis and St. Louis park can agree on a freight rerouting options.

Both studies are posted online at swlrt.org.

The Met Council scheduled two public meetings to discuss the study results: 6 p.m.–9 p.m. Feb. 10 at Dunwoody College of Technology, 818 Dunwoody Boulevard; and 6 p.m.–9:30 p.m. Feb. 12 at St. Louis Park Senior High School, 6425 W. 33rd St. in St. Louis Park.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly described the shallow tunnel plan. It would put light rail trains in a shallow tunnel, not freight rail.