Railroad flexes its muscle over Southwest LRT

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 12, 2013 - 10:00 PM

TC&W complained Met Council isn’t listening to its concerns.

 

At the heart of a fight over expanding light rail to the metro area’s southwest suburbs is a sometimes rocky relationship between the agency in charge and the railroad that’s been asked to make room for the biggest transit project in the Twin Cities.

Documents and e-mails reveal complaints by the Twin Cities & Western Railroad that the Metropolitan Council wasn’t heeding its safety concerns or paying for its help to find a new freight route acceptable to the railroad.

“I must ask whether going forward we can be compensated for our time and expense,” railroad President Mark Wegner wrote in an e-mail earlier this year to a Met Council engineer working on the Southwest light-rail project.

A few weeks later, Wegner scolded Met Council engineers in a letter, saying the railroad demands “are not a concocted wish list nor are they mere suggestions,” but industry safety standards.

The relationship between the railroad and the Met Council has taken on greater significance as the agency begins a fresh look for an alternative route that would satisfy the TC&W and some residents of St. Louis Park who don’t want freight trains rerouted to their neighborhoods.

If it can’t find a suitable reroute, the agency likely will focus on keeping the freight traffic on existing track in the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis and digging a tunnel next to it for the light-rail line — a plan that also faces opposition.

After months of talks with the agency, the railroad said this spring that it could accept a reroute of freight trains on tracks that eliminated curves from an earlier, unacceptable plan and that used berms to keep the tracks on a level surface. Wegner said the features are needed for safety.

But local officials looking at the $200 million price tag wonder whether the features include unnecessary enhancements.

An aide to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak called it a “Rolls-Royce” plan. Another official dubbed it “a Cadillac version they would never build for themselves.”

The earlier, rejected reroute plan was estimated two years ago to cost $77 million. The Met Council has hired a Colorado firm to take a fresh look at rerouting the freight in the hope of finding a better option than the $200 million version, though it appears to be a long shot.

The TC & W would have clout in approving any reroute of tracks because federal regulations give railroads power to oppose discontinuing existing track.

“That does provide them with additional powers that some businesses haven’t,” Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh said recently.

Critical correspondence

The TC & W objected in late December 2012 to the earlier plan for a reroute. It violates “accepted railroad engineering standards for curves and grades” and “creates risks of derailments,” the TC&W said in a written response to a draft environmental impact statement on the project.

The railroad also complained that the earlier reroute “imposes increased operating costs on TC & W due to limits on train speed.”

In late January, Wegner e-mailed Jim Alexander, a top engineer on the Southwest light-rail project, regarding the railroad’s efforts to help find an acceptable alternate reroute.

“TC&W’s staff has spent numerous hours on this public benefit project, without any compensation for our time and effort,” Wegner wrote. “I raised the question of compensation of our time and expense to your staff person … I haven’t received a reply,” Wegner continued in the e-mail.

  • Reroute Review

    The agency planning the Southwest light-rail project said Wednesday that a consultant may look at whether freight traffic could be rerouted through St. Louis Park without putting it on two-story berms.

    Under one possibilty, the freight tracks would follow the same path but not be elevated. Or, the freight would follow a route similar to one rejected previously by the railroad because of curves.

    Metropolitan Council engineers plan to meet this month with Transportation Technology Center, Inc., of Pueblo, Colo., to consider alternatives to the berms, which have drawn opposition from city officials and residents in St. Louis Park. Agency chair Susan Haigh said Wednesday that it would postponed a meeting to wait for the analysis.

    The agency had offered to put the tracks on berms to avoid slopes after the Twin Cities & Western Railroad denounced plans to run them at ground level at varying elevations as unsafe. Agency engineer Jim Alexander said the consultant might “tweak it a little bit” so its acceptable to the railroad, whose cooperation will likely be needed to approve any reroute.

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