Transit planners told Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday that they’re recommending digging tunnels in Minneapolis’ Kenilworth corridor so the Southwest Corridor light rail can run under recreational trails and near freight trains, a step making it more likely the project will be approved over the city’s objections.
The recommendation emerged from a closed-door meeting at the Capitol with Dayton and key Twin Cities leaders and will be sent Wednesday to a panel of metro leaders.
“Routing a transportation project of this size through long-established and densely populated urban areas will inevitably cause unwelcomed disruptions to the lives of numerous citizens,” Dayton said in a statement after the meeting. “I deeply regret that those disruptions appear to be unavoidable.”
He criticized planning years ago for the project, saying officials should have foreseen that a “bottleneck” in the narrow Kenilworth recreation corridor would create “intractable problems” for locating transit next to freight trains and trails.
The tunnels were approved last fall by the panel of metro leaders but put on hold by Dayton in response to complaints from the city of Minneapolis, which opposes them and insists on rerouting freight out of the corridor to make way for the light rail at ground level.
During the moratorium more studies were conducted on the impact of the tunnels on nearby lakes and on possibilities for rerouting freight trains. But the tunnels remained the preferred option of planners.
“We have a wealth of information about this project and now is the time to use that information to make a decision that moves this project forward,” said Susan Haigh, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Council, the agency in charge.
The transit planners Monday also recommended restoring a feature for Southwest that was trimmed last year to save money — extending its line another mile in Eden Prairie and building another station there. The extras are expected to help boost the overall project price to $1.67 billion.
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges reiterated her city’s opposition to the tunnels at the closed-door meeting but didn’t comment afterward.
If the metro leaders endorse a plan Wednesday, they’ll refer it to the Met Council for action April 9. Any plan accepted by the Met Council would be sent to Minneapolis and the four other communities along the route for their consent, but the agency says it could move forward without their approval.
The Southwest project is expected to run nearly 16 miles from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie and pass through St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka. Delays and design changes have pushed back its opening from 2018 to 2019.
The light-rail tunnels endorsed by the Met Council transit planning staff would run north and south of a water channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. The light-rail cars would emerge from the half-mile-long tunnels to cross a bridge over the channel where they would be exposed for about 20 seconds.
The tunnels would be dug as trenches and then covered up and would take a year or more to build. Bike and pedestrian trails would be moved temporarily during construction and then restored over the tunnels.
About 220 light-rail trains would use the Kenilworth corridor daily. Several freight trains currently running through the corridor would remain next to the recreational trails. St. Louis Park staved off repeated attempts to reroute the Twin Cities & Western trains in that community.
If Minneapolis or other cities disagree with elements of a plan, they can offer alternatives in a give-and-take period with the agency lasting two months or longer.
Met Council member Adam Duininck, who represents mostly eastern Minneapolis, said he isn’t “100 percent there” in support of the tunnels, but could probably accept them. Duininck said he wanted to see how the panel of metro leaders reacts Wednesday before making a final decision.
If the Met Council advances a similar tunnel plan, “I’m optimistic we can hopefully work out our differences with the city,” he said, referring to Minneapolis. “I’m hopeful we can find a way to answer any questions or concerns.”
Last October the panel of metro leaders endorsed the two-tunnel plan, with former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak casting the only no vote.
‘Cost of democracy’
On Monday, Dayton defended his decision in October to delay the project for further studies, which is expected to add $45 million to $50 million to its cost because of inflation. The governor said the delay was needed to “permit greater citizen participation in the decisionmaking process and to obtain analyses by independent experts on key issues.”
He said the extra work “added marginally to the total cost of the entire project” but was “absolutely necessary. I would call the costs of additional public participation ‘the cost of democracy.’ ”