A group of metro leaders Wednesday rejected a $330 million deep tunnel for the future Southwest Corridor light-rail line and focused more attention on building a cheaper, shorter tunnel.

The nearly unanimous decision by the advisory panel seemed likely to kill the deep tunnel option for hiding light-rail tracks in the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis, a popular recreation area. The idea earlier faced stiff headwinds from a group of county officials who must agree to fund nearly a third of the light-rail project and revolted over the deep tunnel’s price tag.

Rerouting freight trains onto two-story berms in St. Louis Park to clear way for the light-rail line in Kenilworth remains under consideration as an alternative to the shorter tunnel. But the reroute option also encountered strong opposition Wednesday from several members of the advisory panel, including some who otherwise support the idea of moving the freight.

“That’s a pretty horrible thing to look at,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, referring to an illustration of the berms. “I call it the Mississippi River levee.”

Fellow Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who also advocated a reroute of the freight trains, said the berm won’t work. Edina Mayor Jim Hovland suggested at one point that the option be discarded, then backed off.

The reroute has drawn complaints from St. Louis Park residents and city officials, would require acquisition of 32 homes or businesses and would cost about $200 million. Members of the advisory panel said the price was driven up by railroads that cite safety as a reason to demand expensive improvements allowing them to run longer, faster trains.

“It sure seems the railroads are not asking for what they need, but for everything they want,” remarked Peter Wagenius, a transportation policy aide to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh, the head of the agency overseeing the light-rail project, told the metro leaders that engineering experts from Colorado would analyze other possibilities for rerouting freight trains. She said that analysis — and another analysis of the environmental effect of a short tunnel — would delay decisions on the project by at least another two weeks.

Interest in shorter tunnel

Rejection of the deep tunnel, dissatisfaction with the existing freight reroute proposal and doubts about finding a suitable reroute option have created more interest in digging a shorter tunnel in Kenilworth for the future light-rail line.

A shorter, shallower tunnel would cost roughly $160 million and run nearly a mile in the corridor compared with the 1.4-mile-long deep tunnel. But it also has critics. Instead of being bored underground like the deep tunnel, the shorter tunnel would be dug from above and covered. Minneapolis officials worry about the effect on the environment and neighbors.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board opposes a shorter tunnel, from which LRT trains would emerge to cross over the Kenilworth Channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake, a popular canoe and kayak route. The Park Board has the power to challenge the proposed route and designs under federal transportation policies, and a Kenilworth neighborhood group has threatened a lawsuit if the shorter tunnel is built.

“We have a litigation fund,” Stuart Chazin, head of Kenilworth Preservation Group, said Wednesday after the deep tunnel was rejected. “We’re raising money right now.”

Met Council engineers say they would have to remove perhaps 1,000 trees in the Kenilworth corridor during construction of a short tunnel, compared with about 600 trees if the light-rail line were built at ground level and the freight rerouted.

Wagenius asked Wednesday about prospects for replanting trees in the corridor. “We’re trying to maximize where we can replant trees,” Met Council engineer Jim Alexander replied.

While Rybak has left open the possibility of supporting a shorter tunnel, Wagenius stressed that the city needed assurances that environmental concerns would be addressed. He suggested the Met Council planners were ignoring negative aspects of the short tunnel to make it more appealing.

“We need to work on it but not oversell it,” he said.

Deep tunnel rejection

The reroute and either of the two tunnel options would increase the overall cost of the light-rail project from $1.25 billion to between $1.58 billion and $1.82 billion.

Haigh said after the meeting that it was unlikely that the agency would resurrect the deep tunnel after the overwhelming voice vote against it by the Corridor Management Committee, a panel of metro leaders advising the Met Council on the light-rail options.

Hovland said the cost of the deep tunnel was “beyond reach.” McLaughlin called it “an unacceptable alternative.”

“The deep tunnel kills this project,” Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison added.

The search for reroute alternatives by Transportation Technology Center, Inc., of Pueblo, Colo., and a hydrologist analysis of the effect of a short tunnel on nearby lakes will push the date for a Met Council decision back to at least Oct. 9, Haigh said.

It marks the third time in a month that the Met Council has postponed decisions in the face of questions and pushback by officials and residents of St. Louis Park and Minneapolis about elements of the light-rail plan. The nearly 16-mile Southwest line is expected to run from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, with construction beginning in 2015. The Met Council says there is urgency to resolving problems and obtaining consent of cities along the route this fall so that it can seek state funding for part of the project next year.