A consultant last week raised hopes among St. Louis Park residents that there might be an alternative to rerouting freight trains through city neighborhoods to accommodate the proposed Southwest Light Rail Line.

But it turns out the consultant, RLBanks and Associates of Arlington, Va., based its report on an incorrect assumption that the existing Kenilworth corridor where the freight trains now run is wide enough to add another track for the proposed light-rail line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.

"They made a mistake. The corridor is 62 feet wide, not 82 feet wide," Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said after the consultant reports were made public. Locating both rail lines there would require the purchase of property along both sides of the Kenilworth corridor, she said.

The accurate measure of the space shows there would not be space for both rail lines even if the popular bike trail through the corridor were relocated.

St. Louis Park resident Thom Miller, co-chair of the Safety in the Park group that is working to keep more freight trains from coming into the city, had been encouraged by the initial consultant's report.

He was outraged at the error.

"How is it possible that Hennepin County spent $200,000 of taxpayer dollars to hire a consultant to study this important matter and no one bothered to measure the corridor? At this point, we consider any information from the county and the county's consultants to be of little credibility. 

"We would ask that the entire consultant's report be thrown out, and we would ask the city of St. Louis Park -- the entity that requested the report of the county -- ask the county to explain how it can be so irresponsible and how it intends to rectify the situation," Miller said.

Freight rail typically requires a corridor 50 feet wide, and light rail requires one that is 38 feet wide. Even compressing that to 74 or 76 feet, there is not room for both rail lines, said Katie Walker, manager of the light-rail project for Hennepin County.

Train rerouting options

Based on the 62-foot measure, planning for the Southwest Light Rail Line has assumed that freight trains would be moved out of the chosen route for the light rail, which passes through a tree-lined corridor between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles in the Kenilworth neighborhood of south Minneapolis.

To clear the way for the light rail, a 2009 Hennepin County study recommended moving the freight traffic off the Kenilworth route to St. Louis Park onto the Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern Railway (MNS) tracks west of Hwy. 100.

Not keen on more freight trains coming through the community, St. Louis Park challenged that plan and asked for more information on all options. That led to three consulting studies.

Before a joint meeting of the St. Louis Park City Council and school board last week, consultant Mark Amfahr reported dim prospects for moving freight trains from Kenilworth to any of three alternate routes that would keep them out of St. Louis Park.

Then another consultant, RLBanks, laid out the obstacles to keeping both the freight and light-rail trains running through Kenilworth. It recommended against all seven options it investigated, but revealed a stunning idea: That it might be possible to reposition light rail and keep freight trains going through Kenilworth if the bike trail were relocated. That was the finding that was discredited by the measurement error.

Dorfman said it sounded wrong to her when she heard the report at the meeting. She investigated and RLBanks admitted the error. It was an unfortunate mistake, Dorfman said, because St. Louis Park residents are already cynical about the results of the studies.

Another report due soon

A third consultant's report on the effect of moving the freight trains, which now total about eight per day, from Kenilworth to the MNS tracks in St. Louis Park is expected to outline safety measures that would be needed for the additional traffic. Currently, the MNS line carries two freight trains per day. Early results from that report will be released for public review at the St. Louis Park Rec Center from 6 to 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 16.

The decision about where the freight trains ultimately will operate will be made jointly by a varied cast of characters: Officials from Hennepin County, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and several railroads, including MNS and others. The goal is to have a decision by next year to keep light-rail planning on schedule.

St. Louis Park is in the midst of reviewing consultants' findings to arrive at a city position.

Consultant Amfahr said three alternative routes he evaluated would be costly and unworkable options to the MNS line in St. Louis Park.

A route to the west known as the Chaska cutoff would require a new bridge over the Minnesota River. A route along Hwy. 169 through Hopkins that is now a bike trail would displace 131 housing units if converted to a freight route. And a route along the Midtown Greenway would cross the path of the Hiawatha Light Rail Line, he said.

The next City Council study session on the issue is set for Dec. 13. After that, the council will ask for community feedback on the position it may be considering, said Kevin Locke, St. Louis Park community development director.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711