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The freight problem began in the 1990s when the Minnesota Department of Transportation, while reconstructing Hwy. 55, moved the freight line that ran along 29th Street in Minneapolis onto land in the Kenilworth Corridor owned by Hennepin County, with its permission.
County officials say the move was intended to be temporary. They point to 1997 legislation by former state Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, who represented St. Louis Park, as evidence that the suburb agreed to take the freight in exchange for funds to clean up a contaminated site.
“This project is going to be at the top of the list. We’re going to get the site cleaned up and that construction done so that the trains can run through St. Louis Park as soon as possible,” Kelley testified at a committee hearing in comments later cited by the Hennepin County attorney’s office. The legislation authorized funds to clean up the site “and to provide adequate right of way for a portion of the [freight] rail line.”
Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who was mayor of St. Louis Park at the time, understood that the freight tracks could be moved to make way for future light rail in Kenilworth. St. Louis Park officials deny that there was a commitment, saying the suburb agreed only to consider taking the freight.
But a 1998 agreement between the county and TC & W gives the railroad — tiny by industry standards, with just 70 employees — a big voice in whether the freight will ever be rerouted.
The county leases the track to TC & W under terms that allow it to stay in the corridor until the reroute originally planned for St. Louis Park “becomes operational, or at such time as any other feasible alternative … satisfactory to TCW becomes available and is operational.”
The Met Council backed away from a cheaper reroute plan without two-story berms after the railroad said it wouldn’t work and wasn’t safe.
“It really comes down to Twin Cities & Western … making the determination that we’ve provided an operational alternative,” Dorfman said. “I’ve asked, ‘Why didn’t we have a tighter agreement?’ ”
The Hennepin County attorney’s office, which crafted the agreement, declined to comment.
“Unless the railroads have an alternative that they accept … they’re probably not going to move,” Dorfman said. “If we tried to force it, that would probably be settled in the courts.”
Even if the lease were canceled, federal law would preserve the railroad’s right to keep operating unless the government won STB approval to evict it, the board said.
For years, Hennepin County was in charge of planning the Southwest light-rail line. It handed off the project to the Met Council three years ago without solving the freight rail problem.
The Federal Transit Administration, which is expected to pay half the cost, told the Met Council it needed to settle the freight dispute before advancing the light-rail line.
The freight reroute and tunnel options could bring the price to more than $1.5 billion.
“It seems like the way everyone has been deferential to TC & W, that … they’re in there as long as they want to be,” Edina’s Hovland said of the Kenilworth line.
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504