Southwest Line must tackle freight and light rail

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 10, 2011 - 9:37 PM

Federal transit officials gave approval but added surprise complexity and expense.

When the proposed Southwest light-rail line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie cleared a key federal planning hurdle earlier this month, it came with a surprising string attached that could add more than $76 million to the project.

That's the estimated cost of relocating freight trains from Minneapolis to St. Louis Park, which the Federal Transit Administration says must be folded into the cost and scope of the $1.25 billion light-rail project. In addition to the added cost, the contentious freight rail sideshow adds complexity to the proposed 15-mile line.

The directive came Sept. 2 with the FTA's announcement that it had cleared the Southwest Line to move into the preliminary engineering phase of planning.

Because planning for the rail line has cast freight relocation as essential for the light-rail line to proceed, "the cost and scope of the freight line relocation must be included in the Southwest LRT scope and budget regardless of the funding sources that may be identified to pay for the work," the FTA said in a Sept. 2 letter to the Metropolitan Council.

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who has led discussion about the relocation, said she was surprised but not unhappy. "We have to solve the freight rail issue in order to get light rail," she said.

Having the FTA lump them together "clearly puts pressure on all of us"-- the county, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the city of St. Louis Park and the Metropolitan Council -- to decide how to relocate the freight trains and how to pay for it, Dorfman said.

In past years, adding money to a rail project could doom it because the FTA used a strict cost-effective index in approving projects. More recently the FTA has expanded its criteria to include cost-effectiveness, land use and development potential so folding the freight relocation cost into the light-rail project would not necessarily be to its detriment, FTA officials said.

"The Federal Transit Administration wants to expand transit options and create new jobs in the Twin Cities," said Brian Farber, FTA associate administrator in Washington. "However, there is no question that the freight rail line must be relocated for this project to move forward, and FTA will work with community leaders and project sponsors to identify additional funding for this project."

Effects of added cost unclear

Members of Safety in the Park, a group that opposes relocation of freight trains to St. Louis Park, is glad to see the FTA take an interest.

"Apparently now the FTA has decided that everyone needs to know the reroute costs as a part of the LRT project so that the true total expense of these decisions can be considered at one time," Safety in the Park chairs Jami LaPray and Thom Miller wrote in an e-mail statement. "Most importantly, we hope the Met Council will consider the true cost of the reroute including all of the necessary mitigation to keep St. Louis Park safe."

Met Council and FTA officials will talk face to face about the project later this month, said Mark Fuhrmann, program director for new rail starts with the Met Council.

While any cost added to the light-rail project would be a concern, the FTA may not count the freight rail relocation cost against the project, just as it did not count the cost of the Target Field rail station -- paid for by the Minnesota Ballpark Authority -- as a part of the Northstar commuter rail project, Fuhrmann said.

Preliminary engineering, which typically takes two years, will finish about a third of the rail line's design to provide better information on project costs and environmental impacts. The FTA will use information from preliminary engineering to decide whether to permit the project to advance to final design with a promise of a federal subsidy for construction.

Preliminary engineering work will start immediately, Furhmann said, with the hiring of an engineering firm, posting of new management positions for the project team and locating a south project office hub for 140 people.

Where will freight trains go?

Planning for the proposed Southwest rail line assumes that the freight trains that run now on Twin Cities & Western (TC&W) railroad through the south Minneapolis neighborhood of Kenilworth would be moved to the Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern Railway (MN&S) tracks in St. Louis Park.

To move the freight tracks out of the route chosen for the light-rail line, St. Louis Park has been asked to accept four to five more freight trains a day on the MN&S tracks. That line now carries two trains a day through St. Louis Park.

MnDOT ruled that the impact of moving four to five more trains a day to an existing freight line would not warrant preparing a time-consuming and costly environmental impact statement.

St. Louis Park and about 35 residents who are a part of Safety in the Park challenged MnDOT's ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals, contending that neither the effects of rerouting the train traffic nor the mitigation needed have been fully addressed.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who chairs the county railroad authority, said St. Louis Park's decision to take a "confrontational approach" with a lawsuit is wasting public money and making it more difficult to settle the freight rail issue.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711

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