At the heart of a fight over expanding light rail to the metro area’s southwest suburbs is a sometimes rocky relationship between the agency in charge and the railroad that’s been asked to make room for the biggest transit project in the Twin Cities.
Documents and e-mails reveal complaints by the Twin Cities & Western Railroad that the Metropolitan Council wasn’t heeding its safety concerns or paying for its help to find a new freight route acceptable to the railroad.
“I must ask whether going forward we can be compensated for our time and expense,” railroad President Mark Wegner wrote in an e-mail earlier this year to a Met Council engineer working on the Southwest light-rail project.
A few weeks later, Wegner scolded Met Council engineers in a letter, saying the railroad demands “are not a concocted wish list nor are they mere suggestions,” but industry safety standards.
The relationship between the railroad and the Met Council has taken on greater significance as the agency begins a fresh look for an alternative route that would satisfy the TC&W and some residents of St. Louis Park who don’t want freight trains rerouted to their neighborhoods.
If it can’t find a suitable reroute, the agency likely will focus on keeping the freight traffic on existing track in the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis and digging a tunnel next to it for the light-rail line — a plan that also faces opposition.
After months of talks with the agency, the railroad said this spring that it could accept a reroute of freight trains on tracks that eliminated curves from an earlier, unacceptable plan and that used berms to keep the tracks on a level surface. Wegner said the features are needed for safety.
But local officials looking at the $200 million price tag wonder whether the features include unnecessary enhancements.
An aide to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak called it a “Rolls-Royce” plan. Another official dubbed it “a Cadillac version they would never build for themselves.”
The earlier, rejected reroute plan was estimated two years ago to cost $77 million. The Met Council has hired a Colorado firm to take a fresh look at rerouting the freight in the hope of finding a better option than the $200 million version, though it appears to be a long shot.
The TC & W would have clout in approving any reroute of tracks because federal regulations give railroads power to oppose discontinuing existing track.
“That does provide them with additional powers that some businesses haven’t,” Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh said recently.
The TC & W objected in late December 2012 to the earlier plan for a reroute. It violates “accepted railroad engineering standards for curves and grades” and “creates risks of derailments,” the TC&W said in a written response to a draft environmental impact statement on the project.
The railroad also complained that the earlier reroute “imposes increased operating costs on TC & W due to limits on train speed.”
In late January, Wegner e-mailed Jim Alexander, a top engineer on the Southwest light-rail project, regarding the railroad’s efforts to help find an acceptable alternate reroute.
“TC&W’s staff has spent numerous hours on this public benefit project, without any compensation for our time and effort,” Wegner wrote. “I raised the question of compensation of our time and expense to your staff person … I haven’t received a reply,” Wegner continued in the e-mail.
Mark Fuhrmann, who oversees Met Council transit development, said that the agency did not compensate the TC & W and that Met Council light-rail projects have never paid a private interest to develop environmental impact comments.
“Highly unusual request,” Fuhrmann said when asked recently about the e-mail.
“The council respects the independence of private parties to develop and provide comments to Met Council on Southwest LRT,” Fuhrmann said. “That independence is maintained by the council not assisting in any way with the development of business or citizen comments.”
Wegner, in an interview, said he didn’t seek compensation for time spent developing the response to the earlier reroute, but for work the railroad expected to do with agency engineers in early 2013 to design new reroute options.
Wegner said he withdrew his request after concluding that the compensation wouldn’t be worth the effort. “Plus, how would we be perceived?” he asked. “I don’t want anyone to think we are in any way, shape or form trying to benefit out of this whole process.”
Wegner said the railroad only wanted to make sure that any St. Louis Park reroute maintained the capacity the railroad currently has in the Kenilworth corridor, where its tracks are more level and straight and can accommodate longer trains. “The rail industry trend is toward longer and longer trains,” he said.
At a recent meeting, Peter Wagenius, an aide to Rybak, cited the railroad’s clout over reroute options and questioned the need for the $200 million reroute, remarking, “It sure seems the railroads are not asking for what they need, but for everything they want.”
Rift over reroute
In late February, Wegner complained that the Met Council wasn’t moving quickly to address the railroad’s concerns about a reroute, and he questioned whether the agency and its consultants were up to the task.
“Without the necessary freight railroad expertise, it will be difficult for the engineers hired by Met Council to understand our objections to the reroute design … or to craft an acceptable alternative,” he wrote.
He noted that the Federal Transit Administration also expressed concerns about the earlier reroute design in a September 2011 letter that found “sharp curvature, steep grades” and other problems.
“Despite the passage of almost one and one-half years … the Met Council has not presented an analysis or a revised design,” Wegner wrote.
In response, Alexander e-mailed Wegner: “Thanks for the information and your comments.” He said he’d forward it to consultants. “I look forward to continue working with you and the other railroad companies as well as city and county staff to develop an acceptable design.”
In May, the agency announced eight options for dealing with the freight and the light-rail trains — including the current version of a freight reroute through St. Louis Park costing roughly $200 million that Wegner said satisfied his safety concerns. He declined to comment on recent efforts to look for a better reroute.
Met Council spokeswoman Laura Baenen said that the agency and the railroad “developed a collaborative relationship” leading to that new reroute option.