Tensions rise as Twin Cities nears decision on Southwest Corridor light-rail line

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 27, 2013 - 10:34 PM

Tunnels, costs and freight trains keep consensus elusive on the Southwest Corridor line.

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The Cedar Lake Trail, alongside a current freight train track that has been a proposed site for the Southwest Corridor light rail line in St. Louis Park.

Photo: RENEE JONES SCHNEIDER, Star Tribune

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The Southwest Corridor light-rail line is approaching a critical deadline amid mounting challenges that threaten to delay the state’s most-expensive public works project.

The difficulty came into stark focus last week as cost estimates for the line rose yet again and an advisory panel of community leaders sidestepped the most contentious problem: what to do about nearby freight train traffic.

“They didn’t want to take a vote about freight,” said Jennifer Munt, who co-chairs the panel. “That’s because … they couldn’t reach consensus on something like that.”

The decision — or lack of one — underscores the rising tension over the LRT line between downtown Minneapolis and the southwest ­suburbs. Solving the freight dispute and design changes could raise the cost from $1.25 billion to as high as $1.82 billion. The Metropolitan Council, a regional agency overseeing the transit project, is expected to make a decision Aug. 28.

St. Louis Park doesn’t want the freight routed through some of its neighborhoods, while Minneapolis doesn’t want it running next to future LRT trains and recreational trails in cherished parkland in the Kenilworth corridor.

But in a hint of a potential compromise, Minneapolis city officials are focusing increasingly on plans for hiding the LRT in tunnels beneath the freight and trails in the corridor. A deep tunnel would add up to $420 million to the transit price tag, yet appease many Minneapolis and St. Louis Park residents by getting either the freight or the LRT out of their sight.

Trouble is, that option is by far the most expensive fix.

“I don’t really believe that the deep tunnel is a real option,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy, chairwoman of the city’s transportation committee. “Too expensive and it just seems technically risky.”

A deep tunnel for the light-rail line would run for 1.4 miles from south of Lake Street to north of 21st Street. The LRT would be mostly 30 feet below the surface but would reach a depth of 50 feet to get under the channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake.

A shorter, shallow tunnel has drawn special attention as a cheaper alternative, costing perhaps $250 million. Colvin Roy said she would consider it. “I need to see more of what’s possible,” she said.

Objections and fears

“The shallow tunnel is a fake option,” said City Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents the Kenilworth area and earlier voted against running LRT through the corridor even if the freight were ­relocated. “Absolutely opposed to it,” she said of the shallow tunnel.

It would run nine-tenths of a mile. LRT trains would surface to go over the channel, a popular recreation area, and then head back into a tunnel on the other side. Goodman said the light rail would be above ground and adjacent to the freight traffic for too long a stretch.

“I’m more comfortable with a deep tunnel,” she said.

Allowing the freight to remain in the Kenilworth ­corridor with LRT running below it in a tunnel would mark a change for the Minneapolis City Council, which earlier approved LRT for the corridor only if the freight were rerouted.

But Goodman and other city officials say they won’t endorse a tunnel without guarantees that the Metropolitan Council won’t later scrap the option and run the LRT above ground next to the freight tracks and recreation trails. They point to the agency abandoning plans for a tunnel on the Central Corridor light-rail line at the University of Minnesota after it became too costly.

“There’s interest in a tunnel option,” said City Council Member Robert Lilligren, who represents Minneapolis on regional transportation panels. “What is the guarantee?”

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