Southwest LRT tunnel plan near crucial decision

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 13, 2013 - 9:08 AM

A plan to dig tunnels for Southwest line approaches a key vote, with policymakers poised to proceed over Minneapolis’ objections.

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A runner last month crossed the bridge on Kenilworth Trail that runs parallel to railroad tracks over the channel that runs between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake in Minneapolis.

Photo: Courtney Perry,

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The posted ground rules made it clear this was no ordinary neighborhood meeting, but a prelude to a decisive and divisive vote on the Twin Cities’ biggest transit project.

“Show respect for others’ viewpoints,” read one rule for the meeting in the Kenwood section of Minneapolis, where residents questioned plans for the project. “Metro Transit police are present for everyone’s safety.”

The plan to put the Southwest Corridor light-rail line in tunnels straddling a water channel between two Minneapolis lakes is expected to be presented Wednesday for approval to the Metropolitan Council, a group of policymakers overseeing the project. Their vote marks the culmination of years of work on a nearly 15-mile route that has swollen in price, pitted residents and officials of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park against one another and provoked rare dissension on the Met Council itself.

“I can’t think of another project where we’ve had this kind of acrimony,” said Metropolitan Council member Gary Cunningham, who plans on voting against the tunnels. He accused the Met Council chief and administration of pushing the plan forward without answering important questions about its impact on the environment or exploring other options.

“I’ve never seen this kind of railroading,” Cunningham said.

At least one other council member is expected to join him in voting no. But the Met Council’s 17 members usually take their cues from the professional staff that designed the plan and are expected to approve it, setting the stage for a bitter fight over the next few months with the city of Minneapolis. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and several City Council members have come out against the plan.

The agency must ask for the city’s consent, but it hasn’t ruled out trying to move forward without it. A refusal by Minneapolis to approve the tunnels would move the project into uncharted legal and political territory, delaying and possibly jeopardizing it.

The tunnels would bring the total cost of the project to $1.55 billion, up from $1.25 billion earlier this year. To afford them, planners trimmed a mile and two stations off the line.

The Southwest Corridor light rail would run from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, passing through three other suburbs. Supporters hope to finish designs, secure additional funding and begin construction in 2015.

Freight vs. light rail

The plan involves digging nearly half-mile-long tunnels on either side of the water channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake in the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis, an area popular with bikers and canoeists. The trains would climb out of the tunnels and cross a bridge over the channel in a 360-yard stretch where they would be exposed for roughly 20 seconds.

The $160 million tunnel option would involve removing 1,000 trees but was deemed less disruptive than rerouting the freight trains from the Kenilworth corridor to St. Louis Park to make room for the light rail. That $200 million option was discarded by a panel of metro leaders last week after stiff opposition from St. Louis Park and some of its residents to putting the freight on two-story berms that a railroad said were needed to smooth out grades. The reroute would have required removing 30 properties in the suburb.

If the freight were rerouted, the light rail would be built at ground level through the entire Kenilworth corridor next to the recreation trails.

Met Council staff engineers and council chair Susan Haigh concluded that tunnels are better because they keep existing freight traffic in the corridor while hiding the future light rail most of the way. About 220 light-rail trains would use the corridor daily along with several freight trains that currently run through it. No homes would be removed. The Kenilworth bike and pedestrian trails would be moved to nearby streets during construction but later restored to the corridor.

“Our solution is the tunnels, because they preserve the Kenilworth trail as best we can in the condition that it’s in,” said Council Member Jennifer Munt, who will vote for the plan. “It’s a good compromise.”

But the tunnel plan faces opposition from some in Minneapolis who say the trains surface for too long near the channel and who distrust assurances that bike trails and lakes will be preserved. Rybak and several City Council members want the Met Council to explore more options for rerouting the freight to St. Louis Park. They say planners violated guarantees to move the freight out of the Kenilworth corridor in exchange for locating the light rail there.

Kenwood residents held signs reading, “If the freight stays, LRT goes,” at the Met Council’s open house Thursday. Others pored over giant engineering maps laid out on tables and quizzed agency planners and public relations employees about details. Not everyone opposed the tunnels.

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