Key agreements related to freight trains that will share part of the $1.9 billion Southwest light-rail corridor were approved by the Metropolitan Council and Hennepin County this week.
The actions clear the way for the regional planning body to apply for a $929 million grant from the federal government to help build the 14.5-mile line between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.
But before doing that, the council needed to iron out ownership and operational issues related to freight operators that either own or use the railroad right of way and track along roughly six miles of the route.
The operators include Glencoe-based Twin Cities & Western Railroad (TC&W), which hauls commodities through the Kenilworth corridor in Minneapolis, as well as on a spur owned by Canadian Pacific Railway between St. Louis Park and Minnetonka.
One agreement calls for Hennepin County to assume “common carrier” responsibilities along the route, which involves controlling which rail carriers use the track. Initially, TC&W was expected to take over common carrier responsibilities, but talks between the railroad and the council broke down, prompting the new arrangement.
“I’ll support this, but it’s awfully tough,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat on Tuesday. He said the new arrangement is a “major deviation” from the original plan.
Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff said Wednesday she was “disappointed that we weren’t able to reach an agreement with TC&W,” but she said the “agreements before us today are a major step forward.”
The council also approved offering a separate $11.9 million agreement to TC&W that calls for the railroad to cooperate during construction of the line and release all potential legal claims. Another $230,000 may be extended to cover TC&W’s expenses — however, the railroad has until April 18 to decide whether to accept the deal.
TC&W President Mark Wegner told the council Wednesday “we thought we were very close [to an agreement] at the end of September.”
He said there were five conditions yet to resolve, although he didn’t elaborate what they were and said he wasn’t yet ready to discuss the situation in detail.
Either way, TC&W will continue to operate in the Kenilworth corridor as well as the short stretch between St. Louis Park and Minnetonka.
The council also said it would buy the Canadian Pacific 6.8-mile spur for up to $27.45 million. The land in the Kenilworth corridor, between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake, will be transferred from Hennepin County to the council.
The proposal is subject to approval by the Surface Transportation Board, the federal regulatory agency that reviews railroad property transfers. A ruling by the board is expected within two months.
The council hopes to begin building the Southwest line later this year after construction bids are opened May 3, with passenger service beginning in 2023.