Tunnel mix-up snags Southwest light-rail plan

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 23, 2014 - 7:59 AM

An apparent mistake in light-rail design plans sent Minneapolis officials scurrying for answers.

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Susan Haigh, Chair of the Metropolitan Council.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Planners of the Twin Cities’ biggest transit project sent Minneapolis a different design for tunnels than the one approved by metro leaders two weeks ago, delaying the city’s review past a key deadline.

The Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the $1.68 billion Southwest Corridor project, sent the city a design that shows one of two light-rail tunnels in the Kenilworth corridor being built in berms rising as high as 13 feet above the existing ground level, an element not included on designs previously made public.

City officials challenged the elevated design, which would likely prompt more objections from nearby residents already upset with the Southwest project.

Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh called the changes an error by her staff and directed it to “rescind and replace” the altered version with the one the agency approved earlier.

“I found out about it … and said, ‘Whoa, that’s not what we agreed to. You need to resubmit the plans that we actually agreed to,’ ” Haigh said Tuesday.

On Tuesday her agency sent the approved design to Minneapolis.

The two-week delay in sending the proper plans could extend the city review process to July 14. A board of Twin Cities counties that bankrolls metro transportation projects has threatened to shift the funds elsewhere if the Southwest project doesn’t win the consent of Minneapolis and four other cities by June 30.

“If the thing is on a path to get done … we’ll be reasonable,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, chairman of the funding board.

The Met Council staff sent out the version of the design now called incorrect on April 10, the day after the agency approved a Southwest plan without the higher tunnels.

The Southwest project includes nearly a mile of underground tunnels north and south of a water channel linking Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. Recreational trails are intended to be built on top of the tunnels.

Project planners offered the tunnels in an attempt to satisfy some nearby residents concerned about light-rail trains running at ground level near freight trains and the recreational trails.

The tunnel south of the channel didn’t change in the erroneous design sent two weeks ago to the city, remaining below existing ground level.

While Haigh said the discarded north tunnel design was a mistake by Met Council staffers, Minneapolis officials aren’t so sure.

They said city staffers reviewing the Southwest plan last week noticed the higher elevations at some points on the north tunnel. The tunnel berms would have been mostly 5 to 6 feet higher than the trails at ground level and rose to 12 to 13 feet in some places. City officials said when they asked some Met Council Southwest project staffers about the new berms, they defended them.

“Metropolitan Council staff have indicated that the new design is intended to keep the LRT enclosure above the water table,” City Attorney Susan Segal said. “This is also inconsistent with previous representations.”

Changes raise hackles

Haigh said she has been assured by her engineers that the tunnel berm isn’t needed to deal with the water table.

“I asked, is the design … voted on by the Met Council, does that design continue to be a good, safe, efficient design?” she said. “The answer I got was, of course, yes.”

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