Council committee rejects co-location of Southwest LRT

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March 5, 2014 // UPDATED 4:35 pm - March 5, 2014
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
A resolution makes clear Minneapolis won’t accept shallow tunnels

The Minneapolis City Council Committee of the Whole on Wednesday approved a resolution rejecting any plan to co-locate freight rail and a future Southwest Light Rail Transit line in the Kenilworth Corridor.

The resolution, authored by Ward 1 Council Member Kevin Reich and passed on a voice vote, reiterates the city’s longstanding position that freight rail must be rerouted out of Minneapolis to St. Louis Park before light rail arrives in 2018. It also makes clear that Minneapolis will not accept construction of two shallow tunnels to carry light rail beneath the Kenilworth Corridor’s existing freight rail line, an option proposed by Metropolitan Council planners.

Many in St. Louis Park remain staunchly opposed to accepting the reroute, and the deadlock is threatening the future of the $1.5-billion regional transit project. Twin Cities & Western Railroad, too, has so far resisted plans to shift its Kenilworth Corridor freight traffic to the west.

A key Met Council vote on the final scope and budget of the project is scheduled for April 9. The Corridor Management Committee, made up of local governments and agencies involved in the project, will meet a week earlier to look over revised technical reports from two independent consultants and make a recommendation.

The latest estimates show the two options on the table would cost roughly the same: about $220 million–$240 million to reroute freight and $235 million–$250 million to dig the shallow tunnels.

Immediately following the Wednesday Committee of the Whole meeting, Met Council spokesperson Laura Baenen released a statement that read: “Any city council resolution from any city taking a position on Southwest LRT is premature prior to publication of the final independent technical report and a Southwest LRT Project staff recommendation on the project scope and budget.”

The Met Council, the lead agency on the project, was close to a vote on the shallow-tunnel plan last fall. But a meeting of local officials in Gov. Mark Dayton’s office led to a delay of several months, during which additional studies were conducted on freight rail rerouting and the potential impact of shallow-tunnel construction on the Chain of Lakes.

In January, one of the Met Council consultants, TranSystems, released a rerouting study that suggested many of the objections raised by St. Louis Park and Twin Cities & Western could be overcome. While Minneapolis officials, including Mayor Betsey Hodges, seized on the solution, it did little to soften the opposition.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin — a key player in the light rail debate with positions on the project’s Corridor Management Committee and the Counties Transit Improvement Board, a major funding source — told City Council members Wednesday he was angry with St. Louis Park officials for not accepting the rerouting of freight. McLaughlin and others say the suburb essentially agreed to the reroute in the 1990s in exchange for millions in environmental cleanup funds from the county, although the agreement was not binding.

While he has pressured both cities to converge on a solution soon, McLaughlin cautioned Minneapolis City Council members that a freight-rail reroute was going to be tricky. He noted federal rules give the railroad considerable influence over the decision.

“It’s actually about a four-cushion billiards shot to get relocation,” he said.

If Minneapolis won’t accept a shallow-tunnel plan, and St. Louis Park won’t accept a reroute, it raises the possibility the project could be delayed or canceled entirely, essentially throwing away millions of dollars and hundreds of hours already invested in planning. But Minneapolis leaders worry that, even if they agree to a shallow tunnel, it may never be built due to its cost or unexpected engineering complications.

Ward 7 Council Member Lisa Goodman, the only member of a previous Council to vote against light rail in the Kenilworth Corridor, raised that concern again Wednesday. Rather than approve a flawed plan, Goodman suggested the region might move on to another major transit project.

“Let Bottineau go first, then,” Goodman said, referring to another regional light rail project in the early planning stages. “How does Minneapolis lose in that?”

McLaughlin responded: “The delicacy is this line could be killed, and that’s not in the long-term interest of Minneapolis.”