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

The latest options also would delay the line’s opening at least a year and add to the costs.

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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.