Hennepin County asks for new look at Southwest LRT options

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 3, 2013 - 9:22 PM

Officials have requested the Met Council to hire a Colorado firm to assess other solutions to the tangle over freight-train, LRT routes.

Anxious to solve a dispute threatening the future Southwest Corridor light-rail line, Hennepin County officials have asked planners to hire a Colorado firm to take a fresh look at rerouting the freight train traffic that has become a stumbling block to the light-rail transit (LRT) project.

“Our view, in asking for this group of experts to come in … was really to make sure that we’re not ruling something out prematurely,” Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorf­man said Tuesday. “To make sure we’re getting the best engineering advice on this.”

The county asked the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the light-rail project, to bring in rail-engineering experts from Transportation Technology Center Inc. in Pueblo, Colo., to explore alternatives to a reroute option facing resistance from St. Louis Park officials and some residents.

“We don’t have a viable reroute option on the table right now,” Dorfman said. “We just wanted a second look.”

Met Council spokeswoman Laura Baenen said Tuesday that the Southwest project “is exploring this additional independent study” with Transportation Technology Center and affected railroads.

A group of metro leaders is prepared Wednesday to discuss that controversial St. Louis Park reroute option or the possibility of building tunnels to separate the light-rail line from the freight traffic in the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis. But the tunnel options also draw opposition from officials and residents who balk at costs or question the impact on the surrounding environment.

Alternatives that the Colorado firm could consider might include routing the freight traffic on a different path in St. Louis Park or transferring the freight trains to tracks west of the Twin Cities to avoid the suburb and the Kenilworth corridor when heading east. Some of those ideas were considered earlier and rejected.

Hiring Transportation Technology Center to further study reroute options could run about $10,000, and the county and Met Council could share the costs.

“I think it could be money well spent to have some best-in-class take one more look at it to see if there’s anything we can do to reroute the freight,” Edina Mayor Jim Hovland said.

Transportation Technology Center is a subsidiary of the Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group representing freight carriers and others. Transportation Technology Center manages research for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Key legislators in August said the Met Council agreed to look for other ways to reroute freight train traffic into St. Louis Park or other communities to make room for the light-rail in the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis. “I’m hoping they will be very thorough and aggressive in pursuing this option,” Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said Tuesday.

Narrowing options

The Met Council earlier this summer offered eight options for dealing with the freight problem but has focused more recently on three of them: a freight reroute through St. Louis Park, a 1.4-mile-long deep tunnel and a shorter, shallow tunnel to hide the LRT in Kenilworth.

The roughly $200 million freight reroute would involve putting tracks on berms as high as two stories and require acquisition of homes and businesses. That spawned protests in St. Louis Park and prompted Dorfman to seek an alternative reroute.

But a deep LRT tunnel would cost an estimated $330 million, triggering opposition from Twin Cities counties counted on to help fund the LRT project.

Those objections have brought increasing attention to the shorter LRT tunnel option, which would cost perhaps $160 million. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak hasn’t closed the door to such an option but has sought assurances that the excavation for it wouldn’t damage nearby lakes and the rest of the environment of the Kenilworth corridor, a wooded area popular with bikers, canoeists and hikers. The Met Council must seek consent for the LRT project from cities along the future route from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

Minneapolis earlier agreed to have the LRT run through the Kenilworth corridor on condition that the freight trains be rerouted. Some who live near the corridor say keeping the freight trains in exchange for a short tunnel for LRT is unacceptable because it would the leave the light-rail running at ground level and alongside the freight for too long a distance.

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