Controversial plans for a light-rail line to the southwest suburbs were advanced but not endorsed Monday by key policymakers who withheld judgment on digging nearly a mile of tunnels in a recreational corridor of Minneapolis.
The unusual decision came on the eve of talks on the project scheduled Tuesday involving Gov. Mark Dayton, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Hennepin County officials, legislators and Metropolitan Council chair Susan Haigh, whose agency is planning the $1.55 billion rail line. Rybak and some Minneapolis legislators have pressed Haigh and the governor for more time to study the environmental impact of the tunnels on the Kenilworth area of Minneapolis and look for alternatives.
The transportation committee of the Metropolitan Council decided in a unanimous voice vote Monday to turn the tunnel plan over to the full Metropolitan Council when it meets Wednesday but not recommend its adoption.
The decision to avoid taking a stand underscores the contentious nature of the Southwest Corridor light-rail plan, which is opposed by Rybak and some City Council members, and adds more uncertainty to the project’s future.
Seven members of the committee opted to hand off the project without recommendation on the advice of Met Council member Jon Commers, who said withholding an endorsement would “retain space for constructive dialogue” with Minneapolis. He said the entire 17-member Met Council should have “a full council discussion” Wednesday.
After the meeting, Commers declined to comment on what he hoped to accomplish by withholding a recommendation.
Rybak has complained that project planners failed to thoroughly study alternatives for rerouting freight train traffic to St. Louis Park from the Kenilworth corridor to make room for the light rail or to fully examine the tunnels’ impact on water in nearby lakes and streams.
”We need to be sure everyone understands that we are making a very strong effort to reach out to address the concerns expressed by Minneapolis,” said Met Council member Jim Brimeyer, who represents the area where the tunnels would be built.
Council members Jennifer Munt and Steve Elkins said they supported the strategy on condition that a vote is taken Wednesday on the tunnel plan, arguing that delaying a decision could hurt the project’s chances for federal support.
“Not taking action on Wednesday would be an abdication of our responsibility,” Munt said.
Construction is scheduled to begin in 2015 on the line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, with an expected opening in 2018.
The tunnels emerged as the leading plan for the light rail after St. Louis Park balked at having freight trains routed onto two-story berms and removing 30 buildings at a cost of $200 million.
The tunnels would add $160 million to the total cost of the project, which has grown to $1.55 billion from an estimated $1.25 billion a year ago. To afford them, planners trimmed a mile of track and a station at the end of the line in Eden Prairie and canceled a Minneapolis station near one of the proposed tunnels.
The plan involves digging nearly half-mile-long tunnels on either side of the water channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake in the Kenilworth corridor, an area popular with bikers and canoeists. The trains would exit the tunnels and cross a bridge over a 360-yard stretch where they would be exposed for roughly 20 seconds.
The tunnel option would involve removing 1,000 trees but was deemed less disruptive than rerouting freight trains to St. Louis Park. A panel of metro leaders last week rejected that idea, but Rybak complained that more work should have been done to locate an acceptable reroute.
If the freight were rerouted, the light rail would be built at ground level through the entire Kenilworth corridor, next to the recreation trails.
Met Council staff engineers and Haigh concluded that tunnels are better because they keep existing freight traffic in the corridor while hiding the future light rail most of the way. About 220 light-rail trains would use the corridor daily along with several freight trains that currently run through it. No homes would be removed. The Kenilworth bike and pedestrian trails would be moved to nearby streets during construction but later restored to the corridor.
The Met Council has an incentive to settle the dispute. It is required under state law to seek consent from cities where light rail is routed.