LRT tunnel plan heading for vote

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October 9, 2013 // UPDATED 10:55 am - February 25, 2014
By: Dylan Thomas
Met Council engineer Jim Alexander said the Cedar Lake Trail would be detoured for more than one year during Southwest light rail construction.
Photo by Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
Met Council planners’ recommendation is strongly opposed in Minneapolis

Over the objections of Minneapolis, the Metropolitan Council is set to vote later this month on a plan to run a future Southwest Light Rail Transit line through a pair of shallow tunnels in the city’s Kenilworth Corridor.

A majority of the local officials on the project’s Corridor Management Committee favored the tunnel option over the one remaining alternative, voting this morning to recommend the proposal. The alternative would have shifted freight traffic from an existing line in the corridor to St. Louis Park, making room for LRT trains to run at ground level.

Minneapolis’ official position is that freight must move before LRT is added to Kenilworth, a narrow, wooded rail corridor that is also home to a popular trail, and the dispute with Met Council officials is clouding the future of the line. City Council members have discussed withholding municipal consent on the project or possibly seeking a remedy in the courts, options that could delay or even endanger what is being called the largest transit project in state history.

Minneapolis’ preferred alternative was vehemently opposed in St. Louis Park. Twin Cities and Western Railroad, which currently operates in the Kenilworth Corridor, demanded improvements to the St. Louis Park line that would have required the removal of 32 homes and businesses and put tracks on a two-story-tall berm.

Mayor R.T. Rybak derided those improvements as an over-the-top “Cadillac plan” for the railroad, but a last-minute attempt by the Met Council in September to find other potential freight routes failed. The consultant planners called in from Pueblo, Colo., backed out of talks following a closed-door meeting with the railroad, citing a conflict of interest.

The cost of the 14.5-mile LRT connection between Eden Prairie and downtown Minneapolis is estimated at $1.56 billion. Recent adjustments by Met Council planners have trimmed two stations from the project, including the 21st Street station in Kenwood, and shortened the overall length by more than one mile.

The current plan calls for two tunnels. Light-rail trains heading north toward Minneapolis will enter the first tunnel north of West Lake Street, travel underground about 2,200 feet and then emerge just before crossing the channel between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. After crossing the channel on a new bridge, trains will enter a second, 2,700-foot tunnel, emerging in a prairie area near the north end of Cedar Lake.

Planners aim to have the line operating by 2018, with construction slated to begin in 2015. Eventually, about 220 light-rail trains will pass through the corridor each weekday.

Jim Alexander, director of design and engineering for Southwest LRT, said there were about 13 houses within 100 feet of the corridor where the train “daylights” to cross the channel bridge. If light rail ran at-grade through the entire corridor, it would pass that close to more than 50 homes, Alexander added.

The corridor’s bike and pedestrian trail would eventually run on top of the tunnels, but must be detoured during construction, which is expected to last more than a year. Freight rail tracks would also be shifted several feet to the west while crews dig the tunnels, a process Alexander said would result in “some noise and vibration” for neighbors caused by pile-driving and truck traffic.

An estimated 1,000 trees would be removed during excavation. Planners believe they can replace about 90 percent of them, Alexander said.

The Minneapolis City Council, though, is still standing in the way of the Met Council and its plans for Southwest LRT. On Oct. 1, Council members crowded into the scheduled Ways and Means Committee meeting to talk over their options with Peter Wagenius, Rybak’s policy director and his representative on the Corridor Management Committee.

“There are no risk-free paths forward,” Wagenius told them.

Following a “yes” vote from the Met Council this month, all of the cities along the Southwest LRT line will be asked to give their official OK to the project, known as municipal consent.

Wagenius said his “biggest concern,” should the city grant consent, is that technical or financial limitations could force alterations to the tunnel plan. With the project already underway, Minneapolis would face tremendous pressure to accept the changes, he warned.

If Minneapolis withholds consent, he continued, transit projects being planned for other parts of the country could pass Southwest LRT in the lineup for federal funding. Federal funds are expected to cover half of all project costs.

City Council Member Betsy Hodges, who was chairing the meeting, seemed to sum up the frustration of her colleagues when she asked: “If we’re going to spend $1.5 billion, is this the best we can do?”

IF YOU GO: Open house on LRT tunnels

A public open house on Metropolitan Council planners’ recommendation to route Southwest Light Rail Transit trains through two shallow tunnels in the Kenilworth Corridor is 5:30 p.m.–7:30 p.m. Oct. 10 at Kenwood Community Center, 2101 Franklin Ave. W.

Chair Susan Haigh and other Met Council members are scheduled to attend, as are project planners and engineers. The public is invited to view drawings of the tunnels and provide comments.