The Southwest light-rail project is poised to take an important step forward this week after the Metropolitan Council negotiated a series of agreements with railroad companies that will permit LRT and freight rail to operate along much of the same corridor.
The agreements with BNSF Railway and Twin Cities & Western Railroad, plus a pact reached earlier this year with Canadian Pacific Railway, mean the beleaguered project can apply for $929 million in federal funding sometime this fall. The deal calls for the council to pay the railroads $58.6 million to pay for, among other items, property acquisition and construction in the corridor.
The $1.9 billion Southwest project will connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, passing through St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka along the way. Nearly 8 miles of the 14.5-mile route will feature light-rail and freight operating side-by-side. Freight rail will continue service while the line is built — passenger service is expected to begin in 2021.
The agreements approved by the council's Transportation Committee on Monday "were the last major item we needed to clear," said Alene Tchourumoff, new chairwoman of the Met Council.
The construction bids for the project — which has been delayed three times — are expected to be opened Tuesday, with construction beginning next year. The full council will consider the railroad agreements for final approval on Wednesday.
"After that, we can go to Washington and fight for our [transit] grant," Tchourumoff said.
Whether federal dollars are forthcoming is anyone's guess. President Donald Trump did not include full funding of several public transportation projects like Southwest in his fiscal 2018 budget. However, some members of Congress say they support transit funding, and the federal budget process is just beginning.
But before Monday's Transportation Committee, questions surfaced about a provision in a BNSF agreement that calls for a 10-foot-high concrete wall between LRT and freight tracks that would run about a mile in Minneapolis. The 3-foot wide wall, a requirement of BNSF, would be located between the Royalston Avenue/Farmers Market and Bryn Mawr stations.
In a letter to Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb, a Minneapolis official asked pointed questions regarding the wall's size, cost, design and environmental impact. "During the development of the [Southwest] project, city staff has consistently maintained the position that barrier walls would be a detriment to the project and to the community," Robin Hutcheson, director of Public Works, wrote Monday.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, expressed similar concerns about the wall. "This is a fairly major addition to the project, we need to have a lot more information," he said, criticizing the Met Council's "lack of transparency" on the issue.
Southwest Project Director Jim Alexander said at Monday's meeting that his office "will work very closely with the city as we look at design considerations."
Committee member Gail Dorfman said she's received numerous inquiries about the proposed wall from constituents "who feel it's very 11th-hour."
Alexander said, "these conversations have not occurred overnight. This is a very complex project."