The fight over the Southwest Corridor light-rail route illustrates the power of railroads to protect their interests at the expense of a public-works project.
As local governments and homeowners feud over the future of the biggest transit project in the Twin Cities, a small freight train company holds very good cards in shaping its design and cost.
The Twin Cities & Western Railroad wields as much clout over plans for the Southwest Corridor light-rail line as do the communities where it would run — maybe more.
“It seems like they are in the driver’s seat,” said Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, a lawyer involved in planning the light-rail line.
That reality was driven home this week as consultants funded by the railroad industry refused to help light-rail planners after meeting with the railroad.
Railroad power helps explain why the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the light-rail project, spent months creating a costly reroute of freight traffic from the Kenilworth Corridor of Minneapolis to St. Louis Park over that suburb’s objections.
The reroute is offered as a way to make room for the light-rail line in Kenilworth and as the lead alternative to another costly and controversial option — keeping the freight in Kenilworth and digging tunnels nearby for the light-rail tracks.
Whatever its decision, the agency likely will need approval from the railroad, which operates in Kenilworth — between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles — under a long-standing local government agreement and federal regulations that protect the nation’s freight commerce.
The regulations are enforced by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB), whose approval is usually needed to shut down freight lines. Typically, that happens when a railroad seeks permission to abandon service because a line is no longer economical.
A local government can try to force a railroad to give up a line for a greater public purpose, but “it’s a very high burden … to win,” the STB said. Nationwide, local governments won STB approval to close tracks over the objection of railroads just three times in the past four years.
Rerouting a freight line doesn’t require STB approval if it maintains the same freight-hauling capacity as the line being shut down. But if a railroad objects that a reroute doesn’t replace existing capacity, the local government would need to convince the STB that it does. Officials at the board can’t recall a recent case where that argument was raised.
“It wouldn’t be easy,” said Andreas Aeppli, a specialist in freight railroads for Cambridge Systematics, a Massachusetts transportation consultancy. The regulations “give the railroads a fair amount of leverage.”
Even if the government were to prevail, he said, it could take a year or more for a decision by the board.
The TC & W is running freight at 10 miles per hour in the Kenilworth corridor, but it says that those tracks have the capacity to handle faster trains and that any reroute must do the same.
So the Met Council offered to spend $200 million to straighten curves and build berms as high as two stories in St. Louis Park to flatten grades to allow faster speeds and longer trains.
Metro officials balked at the cost. St. Louis Park residents complained that the berms would divide the city and that any reroute would bring more train traffic to their community.
St. Louis Park, Minneapolis and other cities along the future light-rail line to the southwest suburbs have clout to influence the plans because they can withhold consent, triggering negotiations that would delay or jeopardize the project.
Agreement from ’90s