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Win, win, win sought in solving Southwest light rail bottleneck by Cedar Lake

Courtesy of Metro Transit
Finding a way to route the Southwest light rail line along a narrow strip of land near Cedar Lake already occupied by freight rail tracks and a recreational trail must be a priority for transit planners and the Legislature.

When it comes to eliminating Twin Cities highway bottlenecks, there’s hardly ever any controversy. There was no apparent opposition to rebuilding interchanges such as the Crosstown Commons, the Devil’s Triangle and the I-35E-694 Weave to smooth traffic flows.

Courtesy of MN2020
Conrad DeFiebre

It was a different story when the Metropolitan Council laid out the planned Southwest light rail line along a narrow strip of land near Cedar Lake already occupied by freight rail tracks and a recreational trail. The council proposed rerouting the freight trains to other tracks in Minneapolis and St. Louis Park. This stirred heated opposition from the railroad as well as residents who would see more trains passing their homes and a local high school.

Now, under pressure from federal transit funders, the council has come up with a slew of new ideas in hopes of meeting all objections.

They include slightly different, safer alignments for relocated freight rail, elevating the Cedar Lake Trail or moving it out of the bottleneck and tunneling or elevating the light rail. There’s even a new proposal to squeeze all three modes into the area at ground level, which planners once said couldn’t be done safely.

Potential effects on budget, timeline unknown

At this point, however, no one knows what effect any of these solutions would have on the Southwest’s $1.25 billion budget or its planned construction start in 2015 and service launch in 2018.

“Cost impacts of the colocation and relocation concepts will be developed and presented in midsummer,” said a news release from the Southwest project office.

First, the proposals are being floated before the St. Louis Park City Council, Southwest project advisory and management committees and residents at open houses. The city council got a first look on May 28. Here are other scheduled sessions:

  • Joint Southwest Light Rail Transit Business and Community Advisory Committees, 6-8:30 p.m. June 6 at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School
  • Southwest Light Rail Transit Corridor Management Committee, 1-2:30 p.m. June 12 at the Hopkins Center for the Arts.
  • Freight Rail Public Open House, 8-9:30 a.m. and 4:30-7 p.m. June 13 at Benilde-St. Margaret’s.

In addition, public open houses on station design options will be held in cities all along the Southwest route in late June, with times, dates and locations to be announced.

If freight trains are moved …

If freight trains were moved out of the bottleneck under the new plans, they would use new tracks through St. Louis Park with “gentler curves and a flatter alignment” than originally proposed, according to the news release. This is intended to ease concerns over possible derailments near homes and St. Louis Park High School. The new tracks could skirt the high school football field or run through its current location, which would allow the field to be moved onto the main campus.

The new concepts were developed by technical staff from three affected railroads, Hennepin County, Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Three Rivers Park District, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Minnehaha Creek Watershed District and the St. Louis Park School District.

Phew! That’s a lot of stakeholders, which gives just a hint of the complexities involved in building new transportation infrastructure through a developed urban area. If all of these interests and NIMBY-minded residents can agree on a way forward without the lawsuits that vexed the Central Corridor light rail, it will be a near-miracle.

Cities’ OKs hoped for by end of year

On top of that, the project’s draft environmental impact statement drew more than 1,000 responses last winter, which planners narrowed to a list of 25 issues to be resolved. Still, they hope to clear them up by September so approval from all the cities on the route from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie can be obtained by year’s end.

“Our desire with the reroute is that it not be a zero-sum game, but something that works for all sides,” Jennifer Mundt, head of the project’s community advisory committee, told Finance&Commerce

Win-win-win, etc., for all parties will be hard enough to reach. Then there’s the not-insignificant matter of appropriating the remainder of a $125 million state match to lock up $625 million in federal funding for the project. A legislative bottleneck in May left $81 million of that bill unpaid. Long-term state borrowing at historic low interest rates lost out to conservative opposition this time, but it should be a high priority next year to keep the Southwest on track.

Conrad deFiebre is a Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This commentary originally appeared on its website.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Holly Mahling on 06/03/2013 - 06:02 pm.

    Lamentable

    The new proposals to move and rebuild the railroad tracks would destroy some of the oldest homes and businesses in St. Louis Park. Many people are unaware of the rich history that resides in the central neighborhoods of St. Louis Park, in particular the Sorenson, Lenox, and Elmhurst neighborhoods. It is in these neighborhoods that the city can trace its origin in the late nineteenth century. With its mix of commercial, residential, and school properties, the area was “mixed use” decades before the term because a buzzword in urban and regional planning.

    I find it heartbreaking that a plan that would destroy such a diverse and historic neighborhood is even on the table.

  2. Submitted by Patrick Wells on 06/04/2013 - 08:24 am.

    Ugly and Destructive for the St. Louis Park Neighborhoods

    First, the rail controversy is not about light rail. Most people are for the light rail. The issue is whether the heavy rail traffic will be shifted from the Kenilworth corridor in Minneapolis to the neighborhoods of St. Louis Park. .

    Second, the reroute option (running through St. Louis Park) versus the colocation option (staying in the existing rail corridor) involves replacing long established homes and businesses in St. Louis Park with an elevated freight train system. The closest example might be the L in Chicago which is for commuter traffic, not freight traffic. The elevated freight concept does not take into account the effect of this ugly and noisy system on the quiet and peaceful neighborhoods. These established neighborhoods will become noisy dead zones which are dominated by freight rail traffic.The St. Louis Park reroute options mean that the St. Louis Park heavy freight rail traffic goes from about 20 rail cars a day to over 200 cars a day at considerably higher speeds.

    In conclusion, after years of trying various unsafe and unworkable plans to route the heavy freight through the St. Louis Park neighborhoods (prior Met Council plans were rejected by the railroad), the Met Council has finally created the ugly and destructive elevated freight rail plan because the plan can be approved by the railroad. The residents will oppose the reroute plan.

  3. Submitted by Matt Brillhart on 06/04/2013 - 09:38 am.

    Not sure if a win-win-win is possible anymore…

    Why didn’t the suburban communities, St. Louis Park in particular, advocate for the alternate routing (3C) of the LRT through Uptown via the Midtown Greenway? That routing would’ve left the Kenilworth Corridor untouched, with plenty of room for freight and trails. We would not be having this freight re-route vs. co-location discussion today (or coming up with TIF pyramid schemes to pay for toy trolleys on Nicollet).

    Also, at what point does this co-location or freight re-route business become so complicated and expensive that it would actually make sense to reexamine the urban routing of the LRT, taking into consideration the massive population growth along the Greenway? These extra freight costs were excluded from the initial cost-effectiveness-index projections back in 2008-09, no doubt intentionally so Hennepin County Commissioners could make the politically easy choice.

  4. Submitted by J Schultz on 06/20/2013 - 10:49 pm.

    The new plans to build freight train tracks through the city of St. Louis Park makes no sense whatsoever. For grading, the tracks are going to be built on 18-25 foot high mounds of dirt (much higher in some places) that need a right of way of 66 feet on the side. The berg alone is as about as high as a 2 story building, with freight trains traveling on top of that. So we would have that wall all the way through the city.

    From a video I just watched on youtube, the Met Council refered to the old plan of removing about 42 homes while this plan they estimate to be about 82+70 = 152 homes that should be acquisioned plus whatever other businesses, structures, parks and greenery that happen to be in the path (minimally). ugh. The rails travel right next to several schools, now become the back and front yard of homes that previously did not live next to trains. The city will by an eye sore with safety hazzards from proximity and cargo, derailment issues at curves and grading issues that remain, with a wall that will be seen for quite some distance. There will be new areas that have not seen freight trains at all in their neighorhood because of building tracks to possibly handle a train. The new tracks will cover streets, making travel hard and dangerous with blind crossing over this 18 foot wall, and can’t imagine emergency vehicles could conquor them very well. St. Louis Park will become a very undesirable place to live if this happens.

    We can thank Gail Dorfman, our old city mayer turned county commissioner, who made “promises” to see this nonesense go through. The reroute should be the LAST possibility, or I should say NOT a possibility since so many other options exist that make more sense and doesn’t ruin an entire city. LRT should enhance our lives. But it will destroy our city only because of the freight they want to reroute at ghastly consequences while it can more easily, safely, and visually stay where it is.

    Please help save our city. You can visit http://www.safetyinthepark.com for how you can help.

  5. Submitted by J Schultz on 06/30/2013 - 08:09 am.

    also fyi: There seems to be a history of wanting to reroute freight onto the MN&S line through St. Louis Park. As there has beed studies done since 1999 to do this, studies seem to have neglected to reflect the inadequacy of rails there. In late 2012, it was determined NOT an acceptable route because the rail grade variations and curves on the line will not hold freight traffic suggested earlier. So now they are proposing a NEW route, bulldozing through new areas of an unknown number of homes, businesses, and parks (which includes 18-24 high berms for trains) traveling up the entire city covering everything including all the streets. This is hardly a NIMBY issue (that is more Mpls) since St. Louis Park is now facing an entirely different issue of a NEW railroad built through the middle of a developed city never having had trains there before. This is massive with a new elevated railroad that will not only flatten a large part of neighborhoods throught the city but will be the biggest eye sore ever seen anywhere. So yeah, we are going to complain. Not so sure a different and new route comforms with the idea of running along the current MN&S.

  6. Submitted by Matthew Kilanowski on 07/17/2013 - 04:30 pm.

    3C!

    Matt Brillhart, I think you nailed it. The 3C alignment not only serves more people, but it eliminates the high cost of both the freight rail realignment and the duplication of services… Minneapolis is planning a streetcar line on Nicollet in the absence of the light rail, so rails are being built there anyway.

    The Star Tribune also reported that there was a plan to bore some tunnels for the light rail line as one of the ideas for colocation. At the point that they decide to bore a tunnel, they may as well just put it under Hennepin instead of putting such a costly tunnel through the woods.

  7. Submitted by Mark Toffle on 10/18/2013 - 10:45 am.

    Can’t we share the tracks?

    The problem appears to be that no one wants to share a freight rail system with an LRT but why not? The freight trains are not going through every ten minutes. Set up a schedule where during off peak hours freight gets to use the line and during high demand times the LRT gets to use it. You’d just need some spur lines to hold the trains in queue.

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