One way to make room for the future Southwest Corridor light-rail line: Send freight trains down the middle of the St. Louis Park High School football stadium.
“If they did that, the value of our house would plummet,” said Carmella Anderson, who lives three houses away.
Another way: Put the light-rail line alongside the freight trains in the wooded Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis, an area cherished by bicyclists and hikers.
“Minneapolis cares about its green space,” said Angie Erdrich, who lives near the parkland. “Why would we squander that?”
Crucial decisions are fast approaching that will please some Twin Cities residents, anger others and could add millions of dollars to the projected $1.25 billion cost of the metro area’s third light-rail line.
The federal government, which would pay half the cost, insists that local planners resolve a fight over freight trains before moving forward with the Southwest Corridor. Construction on the light-rail line between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie is scheduled to start in 2015.
Neighborhood residents eager to have freight trains moved from the Kenilworth area held a rally Saturday, handing out leaflets to trail users and door-knocking at nearby homes.
Southwest planners are eyeing eight possible route options for either moving the freight traffic to St. Louis Park or keeping it in the Minneapolis Kenilworth corridor. The St. Louis Park options rely on building berms as high as two stories for the freight. The Kenilworth options include elevating the light-rail line above the freight traffic or sinking a deep tunnel beneath the freight. The planners’ decision could come this summer.
Wherever the freight goes, local government will be buying dozens of homes and businesses to make room for it and the Southwest Corridor.
The Metropolitan Council, the regional agency in charge of the project, is working up cost estimates for all of the options and expects to have them ready within the next couple of weeks.
“Cost is a factor, but the impact on the neighborhoods is a big factor,” said Met Council member James Brimeyer, who represents St. Louis Park. “I have not taken anything off the table.”
Railroad softens stance
Opponents of a freight reroute in St. Louis Park thought they had the railroad on their side because Mark Wegner, president of the Twin Cities and Western Railroad, said an earlier version would have created unsafe curves and grades.
But Wegner says the two reroute designs now being considered by the Met Council avoid those problems.
“We could bring our trains through there safely,” he said.
Wegner also expressed concern about whether there would be enough room in Minneapolis for both the light-rail line and freight cars that could be hauling oversized items like wind turbine blades. “We can’t crimp capacity for freight,” he said.
Both of the new reroute options would take freight now running through the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis and move it farther north and west into St. Louis Park. The change could increase freight traffic from 10 to perhaps 30 trains a week on existing tracks in St. Louis Park and also put them on a stretch of new tracks in that city.
Under one reroute, new freight tracks would slice across Lake Street and the football stadium of St. Louis Park. Another reroute would spare the stadium but go close to a school and require buying some nearby houses.
One appears to be the home of Carmella and Charles Anderson, who say they find moving preferable to having freight trains rumble by.
“It’s more important … that the light-rail extension doesn’t get shut down just because everyone doesn’t like [the freight] in their back yard,” Charles said.
Last week, the St. Louis Park City Council said it doesn’t support either of the reroutes. The large earthen berm needed to assure safe grades would “split St. Louis Park in two,” it said
Elevated tracks, tunnels
The other six options involve keeping the freight in Kenilworth near the future Southwest Line. That sets up a fight with some Minneapolis residents.
Two options would put the light-rail line, freight trains, bicycle and walking paths at ground level. The city of Minneapolis has already rejected a similar plan.
Two other designs would elevate the walking and bike paths or the light-rail tracks on structures two stories high for about three-fourths of a mile.
“You’re going to basically have the Chicago “El” running through what is now an incredible natural resource,” said Tom Johnson, a former Hennepin County attorney who represents Kenilworth homeowners who’d rather keep the infrequent freight traffic than see and hear regular light-rail trains.
Met Council Member Gary Cunningham, who represents Minneapolis, says he’s leaning against keeping the freight in the Kenilworth corridor. “Something that will not totally disrupt the habitat in the biking/riding trails within that community has to happen.”
Johnson’s group favors burying the LRT lines below the existing freight tracks.
The Met Council is considering a couple of tunnel options, including one 1.2 miles long from Lake Street to south of 21st Street that would have twin tunnels — one for each track — and be up to 50 feet deep in places.
“For all intents and purposes, it would be a subway tunnel,” said Met Council engineer Jim Alexander, a top manager for the Southwest project. A station at Lake Street would sit three stories underground.
Proponents say a deep tunnel could cost $100 million, but argue that it would save the cost of relocating freight trains.
The tunnel is a tough sell.
“Tunnels involve great known and great unknown costs,” said Peter Wagenius, transportation policy director for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. “The tunnel options do not seem real to us.”
Minneapolis earlier agreed to support running the Southwest Corridor LRT through Kenilworth, despite opposition from some residents, on condition that the freight traffic be rerouted. Johnson said Minneapolis officials now fear the freight reroute will come off the table if a deep light-rail tunnel gains support.
“The Met Council will move toward an underground tunnel … and then at the 11th hour it finds out it’s too pricey, we’ll have to do it at grade,” said Johnson. He predicted “a major lawsuit” if that happened.
Consent and cost
The freight dispute could influence the decisions of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, which have some say in the plan. State law requires the Met Council to seek consent from Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Minnetonka, Hopkins and Eden Prairie to run the Southwest Line through their communities.
The agency can adopt a plan over a city’s objection, but it would risk lawsuits and other delays.
The St. Louis Park City Council says rerouting the freight through the city is acceptable only if “no other viable route exists,” and cited the Met Council’s Kenilworth alternatives as evidence they do. The city also said any reroute would be expensive and should be paid with funding from outside the city.
The Met Council estimates that leaving the freight tracks in Kenilworth near the future light-rail line would involve acquiring 62 or 63 properties, mainly townhouses near Cedar Lake in Minneapolis.
Relocating the freight traffic to St. Louis Park would require buying 46 or 32 properties, mostly small businesses, the Met Council said. But costs could grow substantially if residents demand buyouts because of increased freight traffic.
“I’m going to tell you 82, at the least,” St. Louis Park City Council Member Anne Mavity told a Met Council official at a recent meeting. “This is going to cost more than the $1.25 billion,” she predicted.
The Federal Transit Administration hasn’t barred the overall project from exceeding $1.25 billion, but only required the ultimate cost to include resolution of the freight dispute.