Lawmakers and some Minneapolis residents continue to raise questions about a proposed concrete wall that would separate freight and light-rail trains along a short stretch of the planned Southwest LRT route.
News of the mile-long, 10-foot-high, 3-foot-wide wall emerged earlier this month after the Metropolitan Council reached an agreement with BNSF Railway over sharing the freight giant's right of way just west of Target Field.
The Met Council will build and operate the 14.5-mile light-rail line connecting downtown Minneapolis with Eden Prairie. Nearly eight miles of the LRT route will be shared with three freight rail operators, including 1.4 miles owned by BNSF between the Royalston Avenue/Farmers Market and Bryn Mawr stations.
The way the rail agreement was approved in a matter of days continues to rankle some observers.
Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman, whose district encompasses the BSNF jog, said "the lack of transparency in this process was a tremendous disservice to the public."
Rep. Frank Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble, both Minneapolis DFLers, have asked the Met Council to delay further action on the wall until there's a "meaningful period of transparency." (Met Council spokeswoman Kate Brickman said a formal response to the lawmakers' query is forthcoming.)
Questions have also surfaced about the aesthetics, environmental impact and cost of the wall.
Robin Hutcheson, Minneapolis' director of public works, sent a letter to Metro Transit on Aug. 14 asking 20 questions about the wall. Metro Transit officials responded a week later answering some of the questions, and enclosed a community engagement plan.
The cost of the wall has not been disclosed by the Met Council, which says it is part of the broader $58.6 million agreement with BNSF and Twin Cities & Western Railroad, which moves freight through the Kenilworth corridor between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. The council continues to work on a final agreement with the two rail companies.
Brickman said it's not clear yet whether the cost of the wall will be part of the project's overall $1.9 billion budget, or culled from its contingency fund, which is 16 percent of the total cost. This will be determined in coming weeks, as the Met Council prepares its grant request for $929 million in federal funding.
While the city and the Met Council are edging toward resolution, some neighbors continue to fume about the wall.
Mary Pattock, spokeswoman for the Lakes and Parks Alliance, called the wall "a sneaky and appalling insult to Minneapolis. It illustrates how the Met Council is bent on moving ahead with [Southwest], come hell or high water."
The neighborhood group, which is suing the Met Council to block Southwest, said the wall should have been vetted in the project's environmental review process.
But Kevin Thompson, president of the Bryn Mawr Neighborhood Association, said "people who were upset with the project are more upset" with the addition of the wall, but others who support LRT simply want a voice in its appearance.
BNSF requested the wall based on its "experience with light rail operating next to us, we've concluded the need for a barrier wall for safety," spokeswoman Amy McBeth said.
A similar wall is planned for BNSF right of way in California, where the $6 billion Caltrain high-speed rail line is scheduled to run between San Francisco and Los Angeles, with extensions to Sacramento and San Diego.
About 30 miles of wall and berm are planned for the San Joaquin stretch of the project where freight and passenger rail will share the track, said Annie Parker, spokeswoman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
The high-speed rail cars will be traveling up to 220 miles an hour, she noted. For the Southwest project, BNSF freight rail currently operates at 25 miles per hour, while LRT will travel at speeds up to 55 miles per hour.