Editorial counterpoint: Seven reasons why shallow tunnels are wrong for SWLRT

  • Article by: STEVEN V. INMAN
  • Updated: October 14, 2013 - 8:05 PM

The Star Tribune Editorial Board seems as willing as the Met Council to ram through this understudied option.

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Railroad tracks parallel to Kenilworth Trail, as seen from a pedestrian crossing point in Minneapolis.

Photo: Courtney Perry • Special to the Star Tribune,

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I am disappointed that the Star Tribune Editorial Board, suggesting that “it’s time to move forward,” has concluded that the “Shallow tunnel plan is best for Southwest LRT” (Oct. 13). We’ve all grown weary of this never-ending process. However, when Metropolitan Council officials are pressed with questions on design, engineering and environmental impact, there is a striking lack of substantive information. One can only conclude that this hastily created plan has not been thoroughly studied to determine the true cost in dollars and sacrifice. Though federal funding may be at stake, the enormous project cost of $1.55 billion is precisely the reason why we need to be absolutely certain we are making a completely informed decision. The issues are outlined as follows:

1) The Metropolitan Council chose a new freight and light rail “co-location” option, which is not consistent with the “locally preferred alternative” of separating freight and light rail, and without first having undertaken the same detailed, exhaustive planning process that the other options had already endured. These new recommendations represent a deviation from the planning processes required by the National Environmental Protection Act.

2) The Met Council’s original draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) identified multiple reasons why “co-location” is not feasible. However, the shallow-tunnel option was recommended without having a completed DEIS. The “shallow-tunnel” plan suffers from the many of the same defects as the co-location plan.

3) The shallow-tunnel option creates potential for flooding, groundwater contamination and other environmental issues the council has yet to study in a meaningful way.

4) The shallow-tunnel option eliminates the 21st Street station, resulting in a situation where the neighborhoods adjacent to the route will endure all of the burdens of the project without even having access to the light-rail system.

5) Trains are required to sound their horns loudly upon entering and leaving a tunnel. This means the approximately 220 daily trains will be forced to loudly sound their horns nearly 900 times each day, which will be disruptive for local residents.

6) Questions remain regarding the cost estimates for each option. The cost of $200 million for freight-rail reroute through St. Louis Park has been challenged for including features exceeding what is necessary to safely accommodate freight trains. The council’s attempt to seek a second opinion regarding the costs of rerouting freight rail was denied by a consultant due to a “conflict of interest.” This does not pass the smell test. Furthermore, once adequate engineering is completed, costs of the shallow tunnel may in fact exceed the costs of rerouting freight.

7) Decades ago, Minneapolis agreed to accept freight rail through the Kenilworth Corridor with the promise of rerouting freight back through St. Louis Park. For its part in the bargain, St. Louis Park received millions of dollars to clean up an environmental waste site, a fact that is conveniently ignored by St. Louis Park. Given the history of broken promises, it is likely that when construction of Southwest light-rail transit begins, pressure to reduce costs will ultimately result in co-location at grade throughout the entire Kenilworth Corridor.

It appears that the Met Council is deviating from a years-long planning process and promises made to Minneapolis in order to capitulate to the demands of the city of St. Louis Park and the railroad. These two entities have taken an approach that seriously undermines the planning process and appears to be improperly dictating the project’s result.

After years of study, the council selected a locally preferred option that rerouted freight-rail traffic out of the Kenilworth Corridor. None of the underlying conditions leading to those determinations have changed since publication of the DEIS, which raises the question: Why are we considering any other options? Selection of the shallow-tunnel option not only violates promises made to Minneapolis but results in precisely the type of outcome the environmental review process is designed to avoid: a single community bearing all of the negative impacts of a governmental action while accruing none of the benefits.

That, combined with the fact that this “option” has not undergone the same rigorous analysis as other options, should preclude it from consideration until more detailed study has been completed.

Steven V. Inman lives in Minneapolis.

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