The decision to delay the Twin Cities' biggest light-rail project drew protests and warnings Wednesday from two policymakers who have been closely involved in planning the line.

They objected to postponing a crucial vote on whether to build two tunnels as part of the Southwest Corridor line that will connect Minneapolis with Eden Prairie and southwestern suburbs. The delay of as much as three months is intended to give planners time to build support for the tunnels in Minneapolis, where some officials and residents fear disruption to a neighborhood and a recreation area.

"This is going to be a huge setback," said Steve Elkins, a member of the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project.

"A delay means that the project could be at risk," said Council Member Jennifer Munt. "Does this derail the project?"

Elkins and Munt fear the delay could cost the $1.55 billion project its best chance to win needed federal funding.

But a majority of Met Council members Wednesday joined Chairwoman Susan Haigh in endorsing Gov. Mark Dayton's call for planners to conduct more studies on the tunnels' environmental impact and to explore alternatives.

Dayton announced his support for a 60- to 90-day delay Tuesday after a closed-door meeting with Haigh, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and key legislators. Citing opposition in Minneapolis, Dayton said "we need to step back and everybody take a deep breath." The Met Council is required to ask Minneapolis and the four other cities along the light-rail route for their consent before proceeding with construction work.

The $160 million tunnel plan involves burying two sets of tracks beneath the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis. The trains would surface for about 20 seconds when crossing a bridge over a water channel between two lakes.

Some residents say the light-rail line would be exposed for too long and worry about the tunnel's impact on the channel and lakes. Others complain that officials broke promises made years ago to reroute freight train traffic to St. Louis Park from the corridor in exchange for running light-rail tracks through the area.

Dayton and Haigh said experts will study other freight reroute possibilities as well as the environmental impact of the tunnels.

Haigh said experts would review past options and ask, "Is there anything we missed? Is there another relocation alternative that would be viable?"

But Elkins said more than a half-dozen freight studies have already been done. "I'm really concerned about … one more study," he said. "Are we supposed to replow all of the old ground?"

Elkins said the delay is "a real slap in the face" to communities along the route that have participated in years of planning for the project. He and Munt noted that additional reviews could have been done while seeking municipal consent.

After the meeting, Munt labeled opposition from some Minneapolis City Council members "inflammatory campaign rhetoric" and predicted it would die down after the Nov. 5 election for mayor and council.

"We did have a path forward and it was a sweet spot after the election and before year's end, because we're talking with city councilors who understand the issue," she said. "I believe we had a shot."

But the delay in approving a plan could push the process for seeking municipal consent into 2014, putting it in front of new city councils and potentially leading to further delays.

'Disappointed' in Minneapolis'

Met Council transit planners recommended the tunnel plan because they regard it as less obtrusive than the alternative: rerouting the freight trains to St. Louis Park and running about 220 light-rail trains daily at ground level in the Kenilworth corridor.

But some Minneapolis residents and officials still push for rerouting the freight.

"I don't think people really understand what winning the freight rail relocation does to the Kenilworth neighborhood," Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat told other regional officials on the Counties Transit Improvement Board at a meeting Wednesday. "I'm disappointed in Minneapolis. All we get from them is complaints."

Opat urged Southwest line planners to hold more meetings with Minneapolis City Council members to provide "full blown descriptions of this project."

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin told the officials that the delay was a "tactical decision" to answer questions "in hopes that the municipal consent process will go much more smoothly."

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504