Southwest rail report seeks pathway to overcome impasse

A draft study that came out Thursday may nudge the impasse over the Southwest light-rail project toward a possible solution.

As you recall, Minneapolis and St. Louis Park have been dueling over the question of whether freight trains could be rerouted from the proposed LRT line in Minneapolis to St. Louis Park. The LRT line would run between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.

Part of the line would travel through the scenic Kenilworth corridor between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles, an area that already carries Twin Cities and Western freight traffic. Minneapolis, not surprisingly, prefers that the freight train relocate to St. Louis Park, which, for its part, vehemently objects because the proposed track would have to run along a presumably hideous berm two stories tall and pass by a school and a library.

When politicians see an immovable object meeting an irresistible force, they call for more study. And so Gov. Mark Dayton, concerned that the entire project would — ahem — derail over the dispute, delayed the Metropolitan Council’s vote on the LRT to allow further investigation of alternate freight train routes. Also produced at his command was an assessment of the LRT’s possible harmful impact on water in the Chain of Lakes; some Minneapolis residents had complained that the tunnels might “de-water” or drain the lakes.   

The upshot: pretty good news and better news.

First for the pretty good news: TranSystems, a Kansas City transportation and engineering consultant, looked at nine possible pathways for the TC&W line. Most of them fell by the wayside. One route, for example, which connected TC&W to another train route to the west of the metropolitan area, would have made rail operations too expensive and “commercially unviable,” said Jim Terry, a TranSystems principal, at an afternoon press conference. A line through Chaska had already been built over by homes and businesses. Another route required a costly repositioning of bridges. When all was said and done, the consultants found two viable alternatives. One, of course, would be the Kenilworth route. The train is there now, said Terry. “It needs some upgrades, but it works.”

I, like others in the room, fully expected that Terry would say that the previously proposed St. Louis Park route was the only other option. But we were in for a surprise — a variation he proposed called MNS North. Terry said that he and his team had come up with the solution after attending town meetings in Minneapolis and St. Louis Park and listening to residents’ ideas.

The new St. Louis Park alignment would cost about $105 million, Terry estimated, not counting land acquisition, and would require the removal of about five to seven homes and a similar number of businesses. Those numbers sound relatively reasonable compared to others we’ve heard before: $150 million to build shallow tunnels through Kenilworth, $210 million for the previous St. Louis Park route with its ugly berm and the taking of some 34 homes and businesses. What’s more, the LRT could run at grade through Kenilworth.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis), who chairs the House Transportation Finance Committee, and Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), his counterpart in the Senate, seemed almost thrilled at the news. “This is a new option that appears to be viable,” said Hornstein. “This is a significant new option,” echoed Dibble. “All the issues seem to be addressed.” Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges was also present, and though I wasn’t able to buttonhole her, she looked as though she had avoided a firing squad.

Less happy was Jake Spano, a member of the St. Louis Park City Council. “We are back at the same place all over again,” he said, obviously discouraged. “It feels like Ground Hog Day.”



He pooh-poohed the notion that a consulting company could come up with a solution in only two months and suggested that TranSystems’ berm-free option probably wouldn’t work out when the details were studied. What’s more, he contended, that $105 million was current dollars. By the time, the Met Council started the project, say in 2018, the price tag would be much stiffer. “We need a lot more examination,” he added.

That he’s likely to get. Susan Haigh, Met Council chair, said that she and her cohorts had only just received the draft reports that day. “While these reports provide additional technical information about both freight and water issues, their conclusions must undergo technical, community, fiscal and policy scrutiny.” She expects, however, that the council will make its routing decision by the end of March.

I almost forgot the better news. The water resources report, which was written by Burns & McDonnell, also of Kansas City, affirmed previous conclusions that shallow light-rail tunnels in Kenilworth would have minimal impact on the water in the lakes. Della Young, the company’s regional environmental studies and permitting manager, said the train would be enclosed in a kind of box made of sheet panel walls; so de-watering would not occur. The possibility was so remote, she added, that very term “de-watering” should be removed from future reports.   

Of course, all this planning is beside the point if the state fails to come up with enough money — about 50 percent of the $1.25 billion project — to qualify for federal funds. Last year, the governor proposed a dedicated sales tax assessed on metro residents, but the Legislature failed to pass it. And this year he did not include $81 million in funding the Met Council requested.

In the meantime, it’s full steam ahead. The consultants will present the reports at public meetings  in February. Those who can’t weigh in in person can register their views on an online comment form.

Correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized a dispute involving the Southwest light-rail project. The dispute concerns the route of a freight train that operates through the Kenilworth corridor.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Tim Brausen on 01/31/2014 - 12:26 pm.

    This story is mistaken

    The route proposed for SWC LRT will be through the Kenilworth Corridor under all proposals. The issue before the Met Council right now is whether to keep the FREIGHT RAIL route in the Kenilworth Corridor, which can be done according to the new consultants’ report with the use of the shallow tunnel option, or to re-route the FREIGHT RAIL through St. Louis Park. The LRT will run through Kenilworth Corridor under either scenario. The question for Minneapolis is whether they want the LRT line, with its 220 trips a day, running at grade level through Kenilworth Corridor, or will the LRT go through the shallow tunnels, keeping the 4-6 freight trains running at grade through the Corridor each day. As a bicyclist and walker on the South Cedar Lake Trail, I would prefer that the LRT be underground through this area.

    The glaring short-coming in the consultants’ reports are they do not address safety issues adequately, or include any costs for acquisition of property (buying up those 10 or more properties in St. Louis Park that must be taken from homeowners and business owners to re-route the freight rail) or the other costs of mitigation as this freight line gets routed through 4 miles in the middle of St. Louis Park. The cost estimates are clearly understated, possibly in order to make the re-route through St. Louis Park seem cheaper by comparison (ignoring the clear costs to the SLP community.)

    After years of study, the questions remain the same: do we build the LRT underground through Kenilworth, as the consultants’ reports confirm can be done, or above ground with the corresponding costs of taking properties from St. Louis Park residents and disrupting that community?

    • Submitted by Marlys Harris on 02/01/2014 - 12:29 pm.

      You are correct

      Yes, I mischaracterized the controversy. The LRT is designated to run through Kenilworth no matter what—although I am not sure that all nearby residents have accepted that. The issue IS the rerouting, if any, of the freight rail.

      I believe the story does mention that the consultants’ $105 million estimate for its St. Louis Park route did NOT include land acquisition. And, the estimate was 10 to 14 properties.

  2. Submitted by Kathleen Doran-Norton on 01/31/2014 - 12:49 pm.

    Southwest Rail Route

    Does either of the southwest routes in question help to connect the Dan Patch route to Minneapolis more easily?

  3. Submitted by Steve Elkins on 01/31/2014 - 01:02 pm.

    Minor Corrections

    First,the “Brunswick” routes in St Louis Park would have taken out the grades and the S curves (that was their point). The route proposed by the latest consultant puts the S curves back in. Not enough detail has been presented by the consultant to evaluate what happens with the grades under his proposal. The stakeholders’ engineers will be carefully examining that aspect of his plan.

    Second, the State’s share is only 10%, not 50%.

    • Submitted by Marlys Harris on 02/01/2014 - 12:36 pm.

      Grades and S-curves & Federal matching funds

      According Mark Wegner, president of TC&W, the freight train company, he and the Met Council had settled on the previous St. Louis Park route (the Brunswick route) because it had “fewer undulations and reverse curves” than other proposed alternatives. As far as newly proposed St. Louis Park route goes, he said that it is unclear whether it will work. He has his own consultant studying this weekend because the maps were very vague. “It’s premature to tell if it will work,” he said. He said he was sorry that the report was rolled out without his people having a chance to look at it because it now “got people’s expectations up” that the new route would solve all the problems.

      As far as federal aid is concerned, the Federal government will match 80 to 90 percent of the cost of highways, but it hasn’t provided that level of funding for mass transit for many years. Currently, the most the Federal government will grant would be about 50 percent, and they are more likely to say “yes” to the project if the locality in question provides a greater share.

      Even if Minnesota comes up with the $600 million plus required, there is no absolute certainty whether or when we would get matching funds from the Federal government.

    • Submitted by Marlys Harris on 02/01/2014 - 03:12 pm.

      Clarification on funding

      By statute, matching for mass transit is supposed to be the same as for highways—80-20. But the New Starts program has so little money that IN PRACTICE, it only provides a 50 percent match to allow the Feds to spread the money around to more localities. The Met Council’s plans for the SWLRT assume a 50 percent match.

  4. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 01/31/2014 - 04:15 pm.

    Routes

    I’m curious as to just how the MNS route differs from the Brunswick route. They both go by the library and school where the big S curve is and they want to put in the berm and take out houses and businesses. Yet the MNS route takes fewer buildings and doesn’t need the berm. It seems like there’s something missing from the data, namely why one version needs those additions and the other doesn’t. Other than that, they seem like exactly the same route.

    Maybe David Greene can pop out there and shed some additional light on the subject–he’s generally up to speed on these issues.

    • Submitted by Marlys Harris on 02/01/2014 - 12:42 pm.

      The Brunswick v. the MNS

      It appears from the maps provided that the MNS route lies somewhat to the west of the Brunswick route. But the maps are so unclear that Mark Wegner, president of the TC&W railroad told me that he and his colleagues were not quite certain of the differences. He is expecting a report from an expert on Monday or Tuesday.He told me that he and the Met Council had settled on the Brunswick route as an option because it had fewer reverse curves and undulations than other routes. He is as yet unsure how the new route would compare. I am expecting to get TC&W’s reaction on Wednesday.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 02/03/2014 - 12:11 pm.

      No Idea

      It is very hard to tell what the proposal is from the report, so I have no insight. Hopefully we’ll learn more at the CAC/BAC meeting tonight.

  5. Submitted by Roger Buoen on 02/01/2014 - 09:55 am.

    Correction

    Tim,

    Thank you for your comment. The article incorrectly characterized the dispute and has been corrected.

    –Roger Buoen, co-managing editor

  6. Submitted by john herbert on 02/03/2014 - 08:46 am.

    Is it worth it

    Thank you for your reporting on the proposed routes. I live in St. Louis Park and believe freight trains should stay where they are. The bigger issue to me personally (as I live far enough away from the rails) is the cost. Can we please fully examine the feasibility of spending so much to move so few commuters from the far west who mostly have chosen to live many, many miles away from their jobs.

    I am in favor of efficient and cost effective mass transit, however this segment appears to be neither.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/03/2014 - 09:37 am.

    The laws of physics…

    How much did we pay these consultants to produce a “plan” without a map that actually shows us where the train should go and how?

    Look, for YEARS all anyone talked about was running more trains on the existing tracks. Then suddenly last August or so the laws of physics dictating a straight track on a big damn berm. I don’t why there were no laws of physics prior to last summer but now your telling me the laws of physics have disappeared again? We don’t need the berm?

    Hey, if these consultants can’t even produce a map that illustrates their options I doubt they’ve tangled with and dispatched the laws of physics. My guess is that we just wasted a lot of money on consultants that have produced a plan that was already rejected because it’s unworkable. I suspect that by the time all the details and cost are factored in we’ll rediscover the shallow tunnel is the least expensive way out of this “impasse.”

    I also have to say that I think it’s rather unseemly for Dayton to get involved in this the way he has. Some of us know that the Dayton family has lived in that area for decades and it’s more than a little iffy that a handful of wealthy homeowners who don’t even live adjacent to the tracks are going all “nimby” on us. Half of the the “change the route” signs I see are around Lake of the Isles… where some Dayton’s still have a home. Then all of the sudden when a decision to route through Kenilworth is about to be made Dayton steps in and wants another “study?”

    Here in St. Louis Park many of use were willing to go along with the additional trains until they sprung this huge redesigned track bisecting our city on us last summer. Listen, freight rail has been running in that Kenilworth corridor for over a hundred years. Three times as many tracks were there when those homes were built. In fact that whole area was industrial, if you walk around back there you can see the old foundations. Now a handful of home owners don’t want the freight, AND they don’t want to see or hear the light rail, not even for 20 seconds? What are we doing here and for whom? Why should the whole city of St. Louis Park get stuck with additional traffic so that a handful of home owners in Kenilworth can be rid of freight traffic completely? Especially when that freight rail was there looooooong before those homes were built?

  8. Submitted by Steve Elkins on 02/03/2014 - 01:42 pm.

    Funding Assumptions

    The funding assumptions can be found here: http://www.senate.mn/committees/2013-2014/3071_Transportation_and_Public_Safety_Division/SWLRT%20Handout%20C%20Judy%20Johnson.pdf

    To summarize:
    Federal Transit Administration: 50%
    State of MN: 10%
    Hennepin County: 10%
    Counties Transit Improvement Board: 30%

  9. Submitted by john herbert on 02/03/2014 - 02:28 pm.

    Thanks Steve, I understand the need for effective mass transit, just cannot envision 30,000 rides per day and do not believe the cost (financial and physical) is comenserate with the potential return.

    Nor do I believe St. Louis Park should “take one for the team” as was proposed by a Met Council employee at a public forum. Running many long and frequent trains near the schools will create more dead times during the rumble past and harm the liveability of those single family working class homes near the line.

    It is also interesting to see the terminology wherein $1 taxpayer dollar “unlocks” $9 other taxpayer dollars; all then being funds that cannot be spent on something else.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/05/2014 - 11:29 am.

    John

    The Hiawatha line got just about 30,000 a day in 2012. It’s not hard to imagine the SW line doing just a well, the SW line will actually go somewhere other than a mall.

  11. Submitted by john herbert on 02/13/2014 - 04:44 pm.

    Thrty thousand rides

    Thanks for the information Paul. Just wonder who would take the train from Chaska to DT Minneapolis at 1100 or 2:00 or in the evening. Even if there were 15,000 round trip rides, would it be worth the physical and financial costs?

    Has anybody actually calculated the per rider cost (construction, maintenance, upgrades, ticket subsidy and interest) over the next 20 years?

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