The Metropolitan Council on Wednesday approved a series of agreements with freight rail companies that will share more than half of the same corridor as the proposed Southwest light-rail line.
Agreements with BNSF Railway and Twin Cities & Western Railroad, and a deal reached earlier this year with Canadian Pacific Railway, were the last hurdle to clear before the council could apply for $929 million in federal funding to pay half of the Southwest project.
The $1.9 billion Southwest line, an extension of the existing Green Line, will connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, with stops in St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka. Nearly eight miles of the 14.5-mile route will feature light-rail and freight cars operating side-by-side. If built, LRT passenger service would likely begin in 2021.
The deals struck with the railroads calls for the council to pay them $58.6 million for property acquisition, use of their right of way and construction along the corridor, including a 10-foot concrete wall for about a mile between the Royalston/Farmers Market and Bryn Mawr stations. Council officials say BNSF insisted on the wall.
BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said in a statement, “Our evaluation whether to accommodate passenger projects on BNSF’s property includes two essential criteria — safety and impact to our present and future capacity to serve our customers. The wall would be an important and necessary safety measure located between the freight tracks and the light rail tracks.”
But the city of Minneapolis has raised concerns about the wall. And a letter sent Wednesday by two DFL Minneapolis legislators to Alene Tchourumoff, the new chair of the Met Council, expressed “serious concerns” about it, as well.
Noting that the agreements were just released Monday, Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Frank Hornstein said the “timeline allows for no meaningful transparency or public input and is therefore unacceptable.”
Such a wall “would typically be studied in the context of an environmental-impact statement, or at a minimum an environmental assessment,” they wrote. “How is it that an addition to the project of this scale, with potentially great consequence, does not warrant even the most cursory consideration?”
Dibble and Hornstein also questioned how the cost of the agreement with the railroads fits in with the project’s price tag.
Tchourumoff acknowledged a tight time frame for negotiating the agreements, and that the “process is not always ideal” in part because it involves private companies.
Southwest Project Director Jim Alexander said he was working with the city to alleviate its concerns.