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Southwest LRT’s path hung up by two intractable positions

Solving this conflict will mean coming up with extreme ideas — or maybe just simple compromises.

Southwest LRT
Metropolitan CouncilThe 15.8-mile Southwest LRT Project would extend the Green Line from downtown Minneapolis through the southwestern suburban cities of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie.

The path of the Southwest LRT line seems to have become as stuck as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Fortunately, it’s happening in Minnesota; so there has been no violence, just clenched jaws, letters to the editor and threats of a lawsuit.

There are basically two intractable positions. On one side is Minneapolis, which insists that it will tolerate the LRT line running along a shallow tunnel through the scenic corridor between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles only if the freight line that now operates there moves to St. Louis Park. On the other side stands St. Louis Park, which adamantly refuses to accept the freight train because it would have to travel along a berm or bank of land two stories tall. That would divide the town in half and look just plain ugly, and, believe me, I grew up there, St. Louis Park has plenty of ugly spots already.

Sensing perhaps that open warfare might break out or that the whole LRT project could founder on this disagreement, Gov. Mark Dayton in October delayed the Metropolitan Council’s vote by 90 days to allow study of alternate freight train routes and to investigate whether a tunnel in Kenwood would harm the water quality in the Chain of Lakes. The Met Council in turn laid all these weighty matters off on outside consulting firms who are due to report their findings sometime this month.  

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Meanwhile, a friend of mine, a resident of Kenwood, came up with another idea — a simple solution. The Met Council, he suggested, should buy the Twin Cities & Western Railroad. Its revenues, according to Dunn & Bradstreet, are only about $11.5 million a year. They could be more, but by definition, a Class III short-haul train carrier, which is what TC & W is, earns less than $20 million annually. The company is privately held, so I have no idea how much it is worth, but even if it is capitalized at only 10 times earnings, the Met Council would have to pay $110 million to $200 million to acquire it.

What would the Met Council do with a freight rail company? Well, it could sell it to another company that might be less particular about the route.

Safety worries

But when I talked to TC&W’s CEO Mark Wegner, he didn’t strike me as being an obstinate fusspot. The company had been negotiating first with Hennepin County and later with the Met Council over the route, and his biggest concern was the safety of operations. In initial plans, he explained, the proposed route was too curvy to accommodate a train. A second plan was worse; not only was it too curvy, but it required the trains to climb a steep grade and then complete a series of S’s on its way to an intersection. When presented with S curves, trains tend to straighten out and leave the track. “The physics wouldn’t work,” he says. After that came a plan where the train undulated — also not great. Finally, the Met Council came up with the two options: leave the train where it is or put it on a berm in St. Louis Park.

Wegner has no particular preference. As long as the route is safe, and as long as it wouldn’t require a hike in rates to his customers, it would be acceptable. “It’s a tough situation,” he says. “No matter which way it goes, someone is gonna be mad.”

And problem is, even if the Met Council bought TC&W, it wouldn’t be able to sell to anybody else unless the company had a viable route. Even if the Met Council itself ran the line, Minneapolis and St. Louis Park residents would still be purple with rage about the route.

Would purchasers be lined up? TC&W does have a unique selling proposition — unique-ish, anyway. Because its route intersects with those of several other rail carriers, its customers can ship their goods far out of the area without using trucks. Wegner says that business is trending upward, and the company was putting all its extra money into improving the lines. If business picks up further, he adds, TC&W would probably start re-investing in railroad cars. That doesn’t sound to me as though the company is rolling in cash.

Of course, the Met Council could buy the TC&W and simply shut down the entire operation. Then it wouldn’t have to worry about the freight route at all. It’s unlikely, however, that federal regulators would allow that. Trains are much more energy-efficient than trucks, and the U.S. Department of Transportation would like to see trains move a greater portion of the nation’s freight, 50 percent instead of the current 40 percent.

Economic impact

I didn’t want to break Wegner’s heart and ask him about the economic impact should TC&W be put out of business. Besides, the company had already commissioned and published its own report called “Economic Impact of TC&W Railroad’s Freight Operations.” It’s not too revealing. The line carries about $1.5 billion in client goods annually or 2.4 million net tons of goods. (Net tons means without the weight of the rail cars.) The company has about 70 employees; so they would be out of work, and presumably, the line’s customers who include producers of wheat, vegetables, soy beans, metals and so on, would have to make other arrangements to ship their goods, which might make them more costly.

In any case, putting a going concern out of business would be a pretty drastic solution, one that would still cost upwards up $150 million. Moving the bike and pedestrian paths in Kenwood to the other side of Cedar Lake would be much less costly. For maybe $20 million, the Met Council could offer a lavish biking route with heated pathways and free lattes all the way to downtown.  

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I know, I know. There are a million arguments against that idea too. What this all proves is that there is no “simple solution.” Some of us are going to have to make compromises — or give up on mass transit altogether.