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Southwest LRT construction is about to get real. What that could mean for you

The latest on Southwest LRT and what we know now about the construction schedule for the 14.5-mile, Minneapolis-to-Eden Prairie route.

SWLRT Project Director Jim Alexander
SWLRT Project Director Jim Alexander leading members of the press on a tour of the Southwest LRT route earlier this week.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

For those who live, work or use any of the amenities along the route of Southwest LRT, the time has come: construction of the massive project could affect you soon. This week, the Metropolitan Council announced the locations for the first part of the work on the 14.5-mile extension of the Green Line.

Here’s the latest on Southwest LRT and what we know now about the construction schedule for the Minneapolis-to-Eden Prairie route, a $2 billion project expected to open to passengers in 2023.

So this is finally happening?

Yes. The first thing many people will notice is that roughly two-thirds of Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Trail, the paved bike path that runs between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles, will close next month, and so will a nearby stretch of the Cedar Lake trail that runs through St. Louis Park and Hopkins. The closures could last for the entire duration of the light-rail construction and will be the first visible sign of work along the route.

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Those closures will have a significant impact. The Kenilworth Trail alone counts nearly 663,200 annual trips, according to regional parks officials. “We’re going to have to all work through it,” SWLRT Project Director Jim Alexander said this week, standing in what will be a future transit station in Hopkins near Excelsior Boulevard. Alexander is among those who use the trails to bike to work.

As early as May 13, crews will block off the Kenilworth trail between the Midtown Greenway and West 21st Street, and the Cedar Lake trail from its intersection near Hopkin’s North Cedar Lake trail to France Avenue in St. Louis Park. People should follow new signs pointing out detours, Alexander said

In addition to the closures, people in St. Louis Park may notice unusual freight train traffic beginning mid-May as an early indication of SWLRT construction. At a construction site between Highway 100 and Beltline Boulevard, crews plan to start receiving and unloading 1,600-foot rail segments for the new line.

Metropolitan Council
I’ve heard the project is going to be removing some trees. On the scale of tree-trimming to tree-pocalypse, what’s this going to look like?

Over the next several weeks, the construction firm leading the project, Lunda Construction/C.S. McCrossan, and Metro Transit will coordinate with Minneapolis officials on a plan for removing trees and shrubs in the way of the light rail line, Alexander said. Right now, about 2,100 trees are in the construction area, 1,300 of which crews will take out for the light-rail project. Eventually, crews plan to plant 1,100 new trees and plants that are native to the area as a replacement to the lost vegetation from construction, Alexander said.

So the deforestation will be visible — and audible, especially in neighborhoods such as Minneapolis’ Bryn Mawr and St. Louis Park’s Lake Forest, Alexander said. Freight trains will also remain in service to add to the din. “Construction is messy, and I think everybody needs to understand that,” he said, describing how crews will follow rules on sound levels and allowable hours for construction. “We’re working in people’s backyards, so to speak, and we want to be mindful of that.”

How has that gone over?

As with many things related to the Southwest LRT project, the tree-cutting plan is not without controversy. A group of state and local politicians as well as neighbors believe the Met Council should hold off on the tree removal at least for now until the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) finalizes its $929 million portion of the project.

Kenilworth Trail
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
This area of the Kenilworth Trail will become the West Lake Station in Minneapolis.
In a letter to Met Council Chair Nora Slawik, Sen. Scott Dibble, Rep. Frank Hornstein and Minneapolis City Council member Lisa Goodman, as well as members of Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, wrote: “In the event that SWLRT does not proceed for any reason, elimination of this unique, urban forest preserve and passageway would be a reckless and irreversible mistake. At a minimum, should construction be delayed for whatever reason, losing the ability to enjoy it for this spring and summer season would be a shame.”

Wait, they don’t have the money from the feds yet?

Technically, no. But that’s also not unusual. For similar large-scale transit projects across the country — including the first the stretch of the Green Line between Minneapolis and St. Paul — the FTA typically finalizes money agreements during or after construction. In the meantime, they issue what are called “Letters of No Prejudice” to transit agencies as documented approval of design plans and a sign that federal funding is on its way.

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The Met Council received such a letter for SWLRT in November, which means local authorities have been writing checks for construction with assurance the federal government will reimburse them. All similar U.S. transportation projects that have received a Letter of No Prejudice have eventually secured the federal money, according to the Met Council.

What’s the harm in waiting, then?

On Thursday, while describing the latest construction plans, Alexander said halting the Kenilworth project could result in a higher price tag for the project which taxpayers would eventually have to cover and threaten the light-rail’s standing with the FTA. He also cited a 2015 study in which community members and light-rail engineers agreed on a plan to protect the area’s natural resources, as part of a request for an environmental review by former Gov. Mark Dayton.

“We intend to keep moving,” Alexander said. “FTA wants to squeeze out as much as risk as possible before they sign on the dotted line, but the fact that we’ve been meeting with them since roughly 2012 on this project — at least on a monthly basis — and got a ‘Letter of No Prejudice’ from them for the civil construction, we feel very comfortable that we’ll be moving forward.”

This Eden Prairie parking lot/transit center will become the SouthWest Station.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
This Eden Prairie parking lot/transit center will become the SouthWest Station.
In addition to the campaign against tree removal on the Kenilworth corridor, a lawsuit seeking to block the entire SWLRT project is pending in the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The plaintiff, the citizens group Lakes and Parks Alliance, is arguing the Met Council did not adequately study the line’s impact on the environment, specifically in the Kenilworth corridor.

Okay, so when is the project going to start messing with car traffic?

It’s not entirely clear. It was the complexity of the work needing to be done along Kenilworth corridor and in Hopkins and St. Louis Park that put those sites among the first things to be tackled, Alexander said.

In Hopkins, for example, there will be a new transit station, Shady Oak Station, with a park-and-ride facility and access to the the Cedar Lake trail. After going through downtown Hopkins, trains will pass under Highway 169 and cross Excelsior Boulevard on a new bridge. In St. Louis Park, the route will pass over Minnehaha Creek on a new bridge and go over Highway 100.

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Just south of the Kenilworth corridor, there will be another new transit station below what is now the West Lake Street bridge, which will eventually be a hub for frequent bus service and light rail, with an elevator and stairway to help passengers get to street level. There will also be a new tunnel underneath the Kenilworth Trail and Cedar Lake Parkway, a new bridge and another transit station just east of Cedar Lake, 21st Street Station, which officials call “a gateway to the regional trail network.”

For various reasons, other sites considered to be especially complex include the southernmost stop in Eden Prairie; the new bridge over Excelsior Boulevard in Hopkins; and a crossing underneath Interstate 94 near Glenwood Avenue in Minneapolis. Those areas could need two to three years of work, though Lunda Construction/C.S. McCrossan has not yet finalized construction details for the sites.

But as of now, it’s unclear when — and where — crews will make the first roadway closure along the route, Alexander said Thursday. Lunda Construction/C.S. McCrossan and the Met Council are finalizing construction schedules, with plans to release weekly updates on detours and closures every Friday.

“Once we’re in the heavy throws of things, we’ll have construction throughout the whole length,” he said.“Frankly, they’re (the contractor) ramping up.”