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Latest Southwest LRT options give Minneapolis unwanted freight trains, shallow tunnels

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.

Minneapolis appears to be getting the freight trains it didn’t want and the shallow tunnels it rejected as planning continues for the Southwest Light Rail route through the Kenilworth Corridor.

The re-routing of the freight trains through St. Louis Park no longer appears an option after the Twin Cities and Western Railroad rejected the plan, citing safety concerns.

The Southwest LRT Management Committee, which includes city officials from communities along the proposed route from Eden Prairie to the edges of downtown Minneapolis, reviewed the remaining options this week before its scheduled vote on the final proposal next Wednesday.

“We dither at our peril,” Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin told the group Wednesday. He pointed out that the Southwest line last year was one of 10 similar projects competing for federal money.

“All but two of those have been moved forward. Southwest is one of the two that hasn’t,” said McLaughlin. “Treading water is making a decision. Treading water is costing us money, and it’s not going to advance a new transit system for this region.”

By 2015, there could be 15 projects seeking federal funding, including projects in New York, Chicago and Boston.

“This is virtually all bad news here, and it’s a warning that we had better move forward,” said McLaughlin at the start of the meeting. Money generated by a five-county gas tax to fund the start of transit and road projects is also dwindling because people are driving cars less and vehicles are becoming more fuel-efficient, he said.

There are currently three proposals on the table for placing the light rail trains in a tunnel as they approach the channel that connects Cedar Lake with Lake of the Isles in the Kenilworth Corridor. The proposals call for the freight trains to run at the surface level.

Construction of the tunnels, which would run under the channel in all three options, would delay the project at least a year and would add to the current project price tag of $1.553 billion.

The most expensive option would require a tunnel more than a mile long — 5,800 feet — beginning just north of Lake Street and ending just short of the planned Penn Station. That option could add an estimated $185 million to the cost of the project and delay the opening of the line until 2020. This option would eliminate a planned station at 21st Street.

An option with a shorter tunnel — 3,100 feet — also would begin just north of Lake Street and end at Burnham Road. This option could add an estimated $140 million to the cost and also would delay the opening of the line until 2020. This short-tunnel version would make it possible to keep the station at 21st Street in the plan.

The least expensive option would be a shorter tunnel that could add an estimated $50 million to the cost and delay the opening until 2019.

The plans were not acceptable to the Minneapolis delegate to the meeting.

“There has been some misunderstanding that what is being offered is a deep tunnel,” said Peter Wagenius, policy director for Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. He served in the same capacity for former Mayor R.T. Rybak. “No. The deep tunnel has never been offered.”

Wagenius said there has been talk of a deep tunnel, but Minneapolis agreed to take it off the table last fall after being assured that the freight line would be re-located.

“The city’s position is against shallow tunnels. The city’s position has not changed,” said Wagenius, who responded with a simple “No” to a question about the city voting to approve one of the plans next week.

“We spent the last six months looking at all the possible freight routes and we still haven’t come up with a route that is workable in the eyes of the railroad,” said Wagenius. “We’d have to jam it down the throats of the railroads, and it’s not clear we have the ability to do that.”

The Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously on March 5 to oppose shallow tunnels and to support instead the re-routing of the freight trains as a more cost-effective measure.

The estimated cost of moving the freight trains, which also would delay the project, is $155 million. That plan would delay the line’s opening until 2021.

“I think that the re-route [of the freight trains] is off the table. The freight companies have made it clear that they won’t accept it,” said St. Louis Park Council Member Jeff Spano, who serves on the Corridor Management Committee.

Another option under consideration would extend the line in Eden Prairie to a station at Mitchell Road at an estimated cost of $80 million. This option also will be up for a committee vote next week.

“Mitchell Station provides access to over 5,600 jobs for the region. That’s significant,” said Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens, a committee member making her case for job access. “We’re getting some criticism that we’re designing a system that is taking, quote, wealthy suburbanites downtown.”

The Corridor Management Committee’s votes Wednesday will be recommendations to the Metropolitan Council about which options to include in the final plan. The Metropolitan Council is expected to vote April 9 on the options and the budget process.

Then the process of municipal consent begins, when elected officials in each municipality along the route, and Hennepin County, are scheduled to conduct hearings on the plan and then vote for or against it. The deadline for those decisions is June 29.

 It is not clear if the project could move ahead unless all of the participating governments accept the plan.

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/27/2014 - 10:45 am.


    They want to “jam” a dangerous St. Louis Park reroute down the RR’s throat. If MPLS hadn’t let a small number of affluent home owners dictate their strategy they might have seen the “deep” tunnel appear as an option. Now they want to complain that wasn’t an option?

    We could have all rallied around a deep tunnel for the light rail but a small number of affluent residents in on MPLS neighborhood decided they didn’t want to see either the freight rail OR the light rail… remember, only about 15 of these homes can actually see the corridor in any event.

    The demands of this neighborhood are simply incoherent. They don’t want to “see” the light rail for 25 seconds, yet they don’t want the disruption of building a tunnel? So seeing and hearing the the light rail for 25 seconds is out of the question but seeing and hearing that train 24 hours a day is just fine? They’ve been living with freight rail for 100 years yet now two trains a day has suddenly become intolerable?

    • Submitted by David Perlman on 03/27/2014 - 04:48 pm.

      This is wrong

      The deep tunnel option was rejected by an advisory panel made up mainly of county officials who did so because of the cost, it was NOT a small number of affluent residents. I do think the neighborhood would have accepted a deep tunnel, but it was never seriously considered.

      I am a light rail supporter but I do not think the destruction of the corridor to route the rail though one of the least densely populated areas of the city is worth it.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/28/2014 - 08:57 am.


        Not really. That was a advisory panel, not the final project decision, the final project decision hasn’t been made yet. Listen, what’s wrong is to pretend that this group of Affluent home owners wanted a “deep” tunnel all along but could never get a hearing. The truth is that they were so focused on ramming the freight rail down SLPs throat they never put together a coherent tunnel strategy. Now that they see that gambit failing they’re suddenly trying to shift the discussion to the tunnels. Problem is we’ve been there and done that already. One of the big reasons Dayton gave for delaying the project another six months (at the behest of Kenilworth residents) was that more hydrology study was needed for the tunnels because residents were concerned about the possible effects of deep tunnels. You can’t have it both ways.

        What I’m saying is if these residents had accepted the freight traffic, and focused on a deep tunnel (if that’s really what they want), we probably could’ve gotten Dayton behind it (since he obviously sees these residents as an important constituency) and worked it out. That panel back in Sept. was a disaster because the reroute they’d been promoting for years unexpectedly collapsed. Just to recap, here in SLP we were told for years that we were going to get increased traffic on EXISTING tracks. There was never any mention of tearing down 33 homes and several businesses and building a two story berm across the city. The “new” plan does almost as much damage, AND has been condemned by the RR company as unsafe.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/28/2014 - 11:15 am.

        By the way..

        Unless you consider the current corridor to be a wasteland of destruction putting the LR in a tunnel and leaving the freight rail and the bike path where it is won’t be “destroying” the corridor. It’ll pretty much look and sound like it does right now.

  2. Submitted by Bill O'Reilly on 03/27/2014 - 11:50 am.


  3. Submitted by John Roach on 03/27/2014 - 12:53 pm.

    I wonder how the current cost compares

    to the most sensible and popular option, which was to run the line down Hennepin. At the time that was being considered, we were told it would cost too much.

    Apparently, cost had a lot less to do with that poor decision than we were led to believe.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 03/27/2014 - 10:13 pm.


      Yes and no. Cost was one factor.

      The bigger factor is that Kenilworth is a better route for Minneapolis.

      • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 03/28/2014 - 01:40 pm.

        better how?

        How exactly is a route through the woods and some of the least densely populated parts of the city a “better” route when you take cost out of the picture?

  4. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 03/27/2014 - 12:56 pm.

    How about no SW route?

    Perhaps instead of trying to jam a southwest commuter rail line through a corridor over the objections of Minneapolis (not just a few supposedly wealthy people, most of whom are not) and St. Louis Park, we just extend the Hiawatha (excuse me: Blue) Line to the southwest?

    Not only would that end the controversy, but it’d be much, much cheaper. Put some of the rail cars that would have been bought for SWT on the Blue Line to keep the frequency the same over a longer route.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/27/2014 - 02:22 pm.


      Your assuming the only function of the route is to connect MPLS to Chanhassen. The point is connect many cities, we’re all paying for it. It’s kind of like a hub n spoke system.

  5. Submitted by Thurston Hammock on 03/27/2014 - 12:57 pm.

    let’s get real

    Let’s try to come to grips with two realities: The shallow tunnel option isn’t going to work. Relocating freight rail through SLP isn’t going to work.

    Frankly, it was stupid for planners to assume that moving freight rail to SLP was a slam dunk politically. And even if it were, they negligently ignored the obscene cost of it during route selection to the detriment of the Uptown / Nicollet Avenue alignment. And now the hive mind “solution” is to build mile-long tunnels through low density parkland? It’s stupid on top of stupid on top of stupid. Stop it!!

    I see three possible outcomes that may allow SWLR to be built:

    1) Return to the Route 3C alignment and send it through Uptown and up Nicollet. This would have been the choice in the first place, if the public had not been lied to about the hidden costs of the Kenilworth alignment.

    2) Relocate the bike trail and run both freight and light rail at grade through Kenilworth. There are lots of options for bike trail locations. Not so much for trains.

    3) What’s the annual operating profit of TC&W, anyway? Can’t be that high. Pay them some money to move to a less cost effective route elsewhere.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/27/2014 - 02:26 pm.

      The 4th plan is the most likely….

      The line will be built through Kennilworth, the freight line and bike path will stay where they are, and the light rail will run through a tunnel. The only question is what kind of tunnel and how long. Personally I think it’s silly to have a train pop up for 25 seconds and go back underground but I think a less expensive tunnel will be the final product.

  6. Submitted by Chris Shepard on 03/27/2014 - 10:34 pm.

    Thank God…

    Let’s bag this misguided attempt at regionalism (and light rail, for that matter), regroup, and deliver commuter rail to all of our major suburbs, and beyond.

  7. Submitted by Dan Berg on 03/28/2014 - 07:25 am.

    Declining value

    The most important piece of information seems to have been skipped over, the fact that the funding source is declining because people are driving less and cars are ever more efficient. By the time any of these routes are completed cars on average will use far less fuel and many will use the same electrical source as the light rail trains. In addition to fuel efficiency the technologies around driver automation are quickly getting to the point where they will have a significant positive impact on traffic flow. Do the people advocating for these massive investments actually have the factual information needed to justify them? From what I have been able to gather it seems people want it for little more than the feeling it gives them.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/28/2014 - 09:10 am.


      Yes Dan, and the facts completely refute your comment. Mass transit and communities designed around it far more efficient than auto-centric sprawl for a variety of reasons.

      Some people don’t seem to realize that the purpose of these projects isn’t to get people out of their cars, it’s not to decrease traffic per se. If you want to drive that’s your business. The point is to create a multi-model transportation that give people good transportation options. It just so happens that when you provide those options, a lot of people use them. It’s simply a fact that these light rail options are better transportation options for a lot of people than autos or buses.

      People come on here and frequently claim that their “privately” owned suburban bus company is all they need for instance. Not even close. For one thing, those “private” bus companies with the fancy buss’s are more heavily subsidized than MTC buses.

      Furthermore, those buses only run for a few hours in the morning and afternoon so commuters who want to stay late or go early, or otherwise need some kind of flexibility are simply out of luck. These bus routes and hours assume that everyone works from 9-5, and not on the weekends.

      • Submitted by Dan Berg on 03/29/2014 - 09:42 am.

        Options can’t be the point be they in and of themselves do not provide value. Walking is an “option” in getting from Target Field to the Airport but it doesn’t really add any value as an option when compared to light rail, cab, driving or a bike. The relative value of most options is far less obvious of course but that doesn’t mean they can’t be measured. People will select the transportation that best meets their own personal needs considering comfort, time, flexibility, etc., beyond just $. Citing the fact that people use light rail is meaningless given the level to which it is subsidized. Ridership would increase from current levels if it were made free to the user. That wouldn’t show it to be an efficient mode of transportation. The only way to see which option or options are most efficient at doing what people want and need is look at them without any subsidization. What would be the demand for the various modes if each needed to be self sufficient? Which generally provides the best overall value for comfort, convenience and cost? That is really the only question that is meaningful.

        Instead of developing transportation around this simple question it has become a political issue as demonstrated by the article to which you provide a link. Not a recipe for efficient anything and instead leads to ideological positions based primarily on aesthetics and political loyalty to various constituencies. As far as facts go I would challenge you to provide a few that support your opinion. I have always felt that it is the responsibility of those advocating spending to provide clear information on why their project is a better use of resources than other options and despite my interest in the topic I have found facts to be a rare thing in the debate.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/29/2014 - 11:47 am.


          “Options can’t be the point be they in and of themselves do not provide value. ”

          I’m sorry Dan, you want to take another crack at writing this comment? It’s very hard to understand.

          If I’m getting it correctly you seem have assumed for some reason that we’re not talking about “viable” transportation options that people actually use. Obviously few people are walking from downtown to the airport, but the Hiawatha Light Rail is the most heavily used route in the entire MTC transit system. It moves roughly 13% of all MTC users. It’s safe to assume that the other lines will be attract about the same amount of passengers. If all the planned lines are as successful as the Hiawatha line nearly 50% of transit users will be on light rail, that would be around 40 million rides a year, and that’s not accounting for new riders.

          As for the rest of your comment, all transportation is subsidized, or did you think the roads your driving cost nothing to build, improve, and maintain? I’m not the one trying to use a simple equation here.

  8. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 03/28/2014 - 12:32 pm.


    How practical would it be to table Southwest and get moving faster on Bottineau?

    I’m sure consideration was given to other routes and there are good reasons this one is preferred, but perhaps circumstances will have changed in the next decade. It might be more practical then to go south of the chain of lakes instead of through. Unless the route goes south of Lake Harriet, there simply isn’t a way to go through western Minneapolis without going between lakes. Going south of Lake Harriet would cut out St. Louis Park, but maybe St. Louis Park would like that result.

  9. Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 03/28/2014 - 01:45 pm.

    here’s an idea

    Why don’t we scrap this mess and go back to the 3C routing, with the added bonus of extending the green/blue lines to Penn along the current route? That way there’s still new service and easy transfers there but the sw line ends up not being terrible. Plus you could use the Penn extension to eventually build a line to the west that would interline with the green and blue lines.

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