St. Louis Park has taken a stand against re-routing freight trains from Kenilworth in south Minneapolis to St. Louis Park, challenging Hennepin County's plan to clear the Kenilworth corridor for a light rail line from Minneapolis to the southwest suburbs.
After months of studying consultant reports about the proposed freight line move, St. Louis Park City Council members voted in late May to oppose the re-routing.
Before the end of the year, the county and the Minnesota Department of Transportation are expected to work with affected railroads to decide whether to re-route the trains. The city now will wait for an answer from the county and state, said St. Louis Park Mayor Jeff Jacobs.
Regardless of which route is chosen, "There is going to be some mitigation that we need,'' including soundproofing, landscaping and "maybe even taking a bunch of houses,'' Jacobs said. "This is going to be expensive, make no mistake about it. It will be a question of negotiation with the county over just how expensive it gets.''
County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who represents both St. Louis Park and Kenilworth, said she views the city position "as a reiteration of the position they have had all along, where they have said, 'We don't want this, you haven't proven to us this is the only viable alignment, but if we have to have it, here's what we need.'''
The city's assertion that there is space to locate freight and light-rail tracks side by side oversimplified the consultant's report on the challenges of trying to use the corridor for two rail lines, Dorfman said.
With a 6-to-1 vote, St. Louis Park council members adopted a resolution in support of making space for both freight trains and light-rail trains in the Kenilworth corridor by relocating a segment of the Cedar Lake Regional Trail and removing some Cedar Shore townhouses.
The Kenilworth route is "shorter, has fewer curves, has fewer elevation changes, and is significantly less expensive" than re-routing freight trains through St. Louis Park, the resolution said.
A combined route through Kenilworth would cost between $35 million and $65 million, depending upon the number of townhouses that would have to be removed, consultant SEH said in a report to the city.
That would be less than the $76 million estimated cost of moving freight traffic to the Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern Railway (MN&S) tracks west of Hwy. 100 in St. Louis Park.
The county, which bought the Kenilworth corridor for light rail and wants the freight trains moved, recently completed an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) for the proposed rerouting.
St. Louis Park said the worksheet failed to thoroughly address noise, vibration, odors, traffic congestion, safety, school use and safety, park use and safety, potentially diminished property values and the effect of train traffic on vehicle, bike, car and pedestrian traffic.
Dorfman conceded that EAW rules narrowed the look at potential impacts. She also said she is pleased to see the city starting to list the improvements it would want if the freight rail is relocated through St. Louis Park.
The Safety in the Park citizens group that opposes the rerouting to St. Louis Park was happy with the council's vote, said Thom Miller, a member of the group.
"The city felt that the county did not show that the MN&S was the only viable route," Miller said. "It became quite clear that the Kenilworth route was easier and less expensive."
Next, MnDOT will rule on whether the recently completed Environmental Assessment Worksheet sufficiently explores the environmental impacts of moving the freight traffic. If MnDOT decides that moving the rail line would cause significant environmental impacts, it could require a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement on the proposal, said Frank Pafko, MnDOT's chief environmental officer.
Pafko has until July 7 to make that decision, but it could be complicated if state government shuts down. Pafko has received a layoff notice and is working to try to make the decision by June 30, he said.
It's unclear exactly how officials will proceed to make the final decision on whether to move the freight rail.
"We have a lot of conflicting infrastructure and a lot of conflicting community and political interests here. We are kind of feeling our way through it," said Phil Eckhert, director of environmental services for the county.
The county staff has "concerns" about St. Louis Park's findings and conclusions, he said.
The county has never considered running light rail and freight rail side by side, Eckhert said. "We didn't buy our corridor for freight rail."
The county has done all of its planning for light rail with the assumption that freight rail would be gone from the corridor, Eckhert said. If the freight rail is not moved, "We would have to redo an awful lot."
Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711