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Park board to hire firm to re-examine tunnel option for Southwest LRT

Metropolitan Council
Kenilworth Shallow LRT Tunnel at the south end

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is about to raise the stakes in its ongoing dispute with the Metropolitan Council over Southwest Light Rail Transit.

On Wednesday, the board is expected to approve the hiring of a national engineering firm to look into the cost and feasibility of building a shallow tunnel under the small channel that connects Cedar Lake with Lake of the Isles.

If a resolution is approved Wednesday, Brierley Associates would be paid $245,000 to study whether the tunnel would be less disruptive to the channel than the currently approved route, which includes a plan to build a new bridge over the channel. The results could then be used by the board to force the Metropolitan Council, charged with overseeing the construction of Southwest LRT, to make changes to the approved alignment for extending light rail service from Target Field Station to Eden Prairie.

The park board has already been told by its lawyers that it has special standing under the federal rules that prohibit federally funded transportation projects from disrupting parklands or historic sites. (The land where the proposed light rail tracks pass over the channel is both parkland and historic, since it’s part of the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway.)

According to the federal rules, if a proposed route is the only “feasible and prudent” alternative, a transportation project can proceed. Even then, though, mitigation is required to lessen any adverse impacts to the parkland or historic site. A route that impacts parks could also be allowed if those impacts are minimal — “de minimus” under federal rules.

An environmental impact statement conducted by Met Council staff acknowledged that there were were impacts on the channel with the bridge that could fall under the federal rule — known as Section 4(f) — but made the case that they were “de minimus.”

The park board disagrees. In a resolution to be considered Wednesday, the board notes that the legal advice it received in October asserts that the Met Council “failed to properly consider” whether a tunnel under the channel is a feasible and prudent option to a bridge. 

The resolution also says the bridge option will have more than minimal impact on the park — and the board has been advised by legal counsel to withhold its concurrence to the alignment, something required under federal rules.

The results of the engineering work could be used to either try to legally force the Met Council to pursue a tunnel option — or to make the case to the federal Department of Transportation to reject the proposed alignment altogether. 

The park board has expressed concerns that the bridge proposal would not only increase rail traffic over the channel, but that it would also be more visually disruptive than the current timber bridge. “The Park Board believes that it is simply incompatible with the pastoral and rustic setting that provides a haven for Minneapolitans and others,” who use the channel and the Kenilworth Cooridor, Park Board President Liz Wielinski wrote in a letter to the editor of the Star Tribune.

If built, a tunnel beneath the channel would be an extension of a tunnel that is already part of the current plans for the Southwest LRT alignment. That alignment calls for a tunnel in the narrowest segment of the corridor, where there is not enough space for new light rail tracks as well as existing freight rail tracks and the popular running and bicycle path. The new tunnel would run between Cedar Lake Parkway and West Lake Street.

However, additional tunneling could add significant expenses to the current $1.6 billion estimated cost of extending the Green Line. Park Board staff has said they think it would cost between $30 million and $60 million, though it is expecting a more precise estimate from Brierley Associates.

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
On Wednesday, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is expected to approve the hiring of a national engineering firm to look into the cost and feasibility of building a shallow tunnel under the small channel that connects Cedar Lake with Lake of the Isles.

The Met Council’s estimate is much higher. Laura Baenen, spokeswoman for the Met Council’s SWLRT office, said staff engineers estimate that it would add $75 million to project costs, in addition to adding a year to the construction calendar. Baenen also noted that the Met Council has already done 800 hours of work studying the tunnel option.

Because the bulk of any tunnel would have to be built below the water table under the channel, significant anchoring would be required, Baenen wrote in an email to avoid the buoyancy tendency of the tunnels to float to the surface.

She also noted that a tunnel would require extensive excavation of the channel and embankments as well as retaining walls and bracing during construction. “This would require significant re-vegetation of the embankment areas upon completion of the tunnel construction,” she said. 

The tunnel desired by the park board would take light rail trains underground shortly after passing the proposed 21st street station. Tracks would continue underground until surfacing before reaching the proposed West Lake Street station.

Met Council chair Susan Haigh has said the council staff will work with the park district to reduce impacts of the new bridge and will resolve any new Section 4(f) impacts that are identified in a supplemental environmental impact statement due to be released early next year.

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by mark wallek on 11/18/2014 - 09:36 am.

    What a mistake

    Whoever thought that giving the Kingdom of Parks independence would lead to better operations and a clearer vision must have left their brains in the toilet. After an august beginning-spending millions on a “redo” of their headquarters they have done a good job keeping the parks in the south part of the city looking like parks. The weed fields up north here-always mowed just after the dandelion seeding-are not so dandy. The headquarters, and the offices there do look good however, so money is being spent.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 11/18/2014 - 11:13 am.

      They are long dead planners and builders of our parks, Mr. Wallek, and that is why our park system is largely a historic resource and legacy that the Metropolitan Council cannot run roughshod over; it is a good thing.

      Park boards of the last few decades have done their jobs better or worse than some, but I think the present one is preserving the legacy far better than most.

      You should broach your specific weed complaints with your district board member, but I think the grass and landscape practices are systemwide; I’m sure no one would mind if you when out and pulled some dandelions, though.

  2. Submitted by Brian Simon on 11/18/2014 - 10:54 am.

    time for a new board

    This is a real tragicomedy. Spending almost a quarter million dollars on a study that’s already been done while refusing to pay the city 15 grand to acquire a small parcel of land (see Saturday’s Strib).

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/18/2014 - 11:19 am.

    Really?

    Trains have been crossing that channel for 100s without incident, and now you want to build a tunnel?

    I wonder if the Park Board is going to assess the cost of this to the “neighborhood”?

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 11/18/2014 - 11:47 am.

      Really?

      How many times a day have those trains been crossing “for 100s,” Mr. Udstrand? Certainly not every 10-20 minutes, 24-7.

      I think a property tax assessment is not out of line; they are gaining a relatively impact free amenity that will increase their property values with a tunnel and many of the homes already are valuable because of the proximity of parks and lakes. Making the tunnel contingent on such an assessment, even if only a modest one, would be a good idea. Those who would otherwise have their homes taken through eminent domain for the current alignment might welcome it.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/18/2014 - 10:17 pm.

        Yes Really

        MPLS agreed to this alignment years ago. No homes will taken for this alignment, THAT’S why this alignment was chosen.

        • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 11/19/2014 - 11:06 am.

          They should be taken and perhaps the problems with the alignment would largely go away without a tunnel, but they won’t be. Doesn’t the Queen of England have a house on this alignment? It is ripe for redevelopment if you ask me, a classic example of blight (too many rich people). Knock’em down and put up supportive housing for folks who could really use some time on the Chain of Lakes.

          Personally, I don’t care where it goes and never did, but I am disgusted by the process and arguments and NIMBYism and everything else dictated by the process and the theory of economic benefit through LRT spawned development.

          A metropolitan area needs an efficient transit system, but that system does not need to destroy the jewels of any city it serves. We should have taken that tunneling equipment used at the airport for the Hiawatha line and gone deep on every alignment where impacts from surface routes are problematic.

          I’ve a couple of short blocks off the Green Line that pretty much destroyed University as a rush hour artery (it was always a reliable option to I-94), but as the transit system is slowly rebuilt after post-WW II destruction, I find that I can begin to live without a car. It has been way too long a slog, though.

          I would like decision makers to identify and add up the costs of taking too many generations to build a transit system that this region needed many decades ago and compare that with what we have put into building the small fraction existing today.

        • Submitted by William Anderson on 11/19/2014 - 11:30 am.

          The current alignment wasn’t chosen

          The Kenilworth Alignment always entailed rerouting freight. The current alignment with co-location and tunnels was never chosen; it is an ad hoc and shoddy maneuver by the Met Council to force through Hennepin County’s gross planning failures.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/20/2014 - 11:02 am.

            Give it up

            Clearly Kenilworth residents NEVER expected to trade two freight trains a day for 225 LR trains a day at grade with or without the freight traffic. This drive to put the LR in a tunnel has nothing to with the freight rail, it’s all about making the LR invisible to a wealthy homeowners along the line, and that was ALWAYS the agenda. Even IF the freight line had been relocated we’d be seeing these maneuvers on behalf of wealthy Kenilworth residents because they never wanted to see the LR trains.

            The City of MPLS did in fact sign off on this route, and no one was EVER able to produce any proof that any REQUIREMENT for the freight re-location was part of the deal. Yes, it was part of the discussions, until it turned out that 50+ buildings would have to be demolished in SLP and new tracks would have to go on top of a new two story berm rammed through the southern half of the city. This idea that poor MPLS is suffering from some outrage because they have to keep train traffic that’s already there and has been there for 100 years is getting old.

            As for protecting the channel, what exactly will the LR disrupt? THAT channel, the actual water, is the only park property, that corridor is NOT owned by the Park Board. Since there’s no pedestrian access to the channel (unlike ALL other MPLS park property) the only people who cold possibly be “affected” would be the comparatively small numbers of water users that ply the channel. And what’s the complaint? That on occasion while paddling through the channel, you see a passenger train? And the only solution is a $100 million dollar tunnel? Why not just put some walls on the side of the bridge so people down below can’t see or hear the trains?

            By the way, the idea that the channel is Park Board Property is a dodgy proposition in the first place since the State Constitution makes water a public resource. Some agreements back in the 80s give some control of the lakes to the City of MPLS, but not necessarily to the Park Board. That channel is NOT typical PB property. And the channel isn’t a natural feature, is was dug 100 years ago at the same time the rail bridges were built. So laws that might apply to the Minnehaha Creek for instance might not apply if this thing goes to court. That channel is more like a canal than a river or lake feature. Whatever.

            And finally, engineers have already looked at building tunnels several times and recommended against it for a variety of reasons. The Park Board is wasting $250,000 at a time when they’re complaining about budget problems. Even if they’re hired engineers produce a plan for the tunnel, unless the PB is going to pay for it, the odds of them legally forcing the tunnels into the build are almost nil.

  4. Submitted by William Anderson on 11/18/2014 - 12:19 pm.

    Kenilworth was never a viable route

    There was never supposed to be co-location of freight and LRT in the Kenilworth Corridor. Over a period of 5-10 years, Hennepin County failed to plan and to ensure that the route it pushed so hard was actually feasible – technically, politically, or financially. The Kenilworth Alternative, which always included rerouting the freight out of the Corridor, was never a viable route.

    No matter. When the Met Council took over in Jan 2012, it chose to force through Hennepin County’s planning failure. Anyone and any agency standing in the way of the SWLRT planning failure has been and will be viciously vilified.

    There should be a public investigation to determine how such a gross planning failure occurred at Hennepin County and who, specifically, is responsible. The same people and processes are likely at still at work planning other public projects.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/21/2014 - 10:37 am.

      Wrong

      The original discussions around moving the freight assumed that existing traffic would simply be moved to the tracks in St. Louis Park and added to the trains already running there. At that time the trains running on both tracks where shorter. By 2013 the company (TC&W I think it is) running the trains on the Kenilworth tracks was running much longer trains, 100 cars. Those longer trains can be run on the current Kenilworth tracks, but cannot be run on the existing tracks in St. Louis Park. That meant that either TC&W had to shorten it’s trains, or the track in SLP had to be radically rebuilt, put on a berm to ease the climb, and straightened out do prevent derailing. The redesign was unacceptable for SLP because it required the demolition of 50+ buildings and a two story berm. THAT was never part of the plan. Meanwhile TC&W won’t shorten it’s trains and cannot be compelled to do so.

      The Met Council had nothing to with TC&W decision to run longer trains and THAT decision wasn’t anticipated by anyone. So the plan was changed to accommodate a new reality. That’s NOT a failure on the part of the Met Council, it’s actually the Met Council’s job. And again, the city of MPLS agreed to this alignment, not just then, but again recently, so no one is shoving anything down anyone’s throat.

      Whether or not co-location was part of the plan in past is irrelevant because none of those past plans were written in stone. Berms and demolished houses weren’t part of those plans either. 224 LR trains a day WERE part of those plans but Kenilworth residents obviously had no intention of living with those plans.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/21/2014 - 11:09 am.

      Anyways…

      Kenilworth is a perfectly viable route, the only problem with it is that the trains will not be invisible to a half dozen or so wealthy residents in vicinity. Aside from that it’s a perfectly good route that will get the trains in and out of the city at much less expense and disruption than building a subway under Uptown. This line is going to move 30,000 people a day in and out of the city, it connects the city to the population center of the metro area, it will suppress sprawl by promoting transit related development, and it enhances livability for both urban and suburban residents. That makes it plenty “viable”… even if it isn’t invisible.

      • Submitted by William Anderson on 11/21/2014 - 05:36 pm.

        Dayton stated last spring, the problems with the freight for the Kenilworth route were easily foreseen 5 -10 years ago. This type of public planning failure is not acceptable; the agencies, processes, and individuals responsible for it should be made known to the public, or such a failure will occur again.

        SWLRT is not projected to move 30,000 “people” a day in and out of the city. The Met Council ridership projections refer to “rides” not people.

        Assuming most people make round trips – SWLRT is projected to move about 15,000 people a day.

        Using Met Council ridership numbers from MPR – “A stop by stop look at SWLRT,” the overwhelming majority, over 85%, of SWLRT ridership is projected at the 12 exurban and suburban stations. Forty- three percent (43%) of ridership is expected at the most distant 6 stations in wealthy Eden Prairie and Minnetonka. Density in these exurban areas is 1800 persons per square mile versus 7,000 in Mpls. Thirty- six per cent (36%) of SWLRT ridership would occur at the 5 stations in Eden Prairie (median household income $116,000 – Money Magazine, Best Places to Live, Sept 2012) – the most distant and wealthy municipality on the route.

        Expensive Park and Ride facilities in Eden Prairie and Minnetonka will enable more and even further distance-living. Residents of the affluent exurban edge of Waconia and Chanhassen, as well as Shakopee and Chaska, will be able to drive 10 -20 miles up the highway to SWLRT Park and Ride facilities, thus greatly improving exurban edge access to downtown jobs and expediting distant edge settlement and growth.

        SWLRT would both cement and expedite the metro pattern of sprawl.

  5. Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 11/18/2014 - 03:13 pm.

    I hope they do push it through to the feds and get the alignment canned once and for all. Too much time and money has already been spent on a terrible route that was crammed through on false assumptions and outdated cost-effectiveness calculations. If planners started this process fresh today without the baggage of the past, there is almost zero chance this Frankenstein route is what they would come up with.

    And before the predictable defenders of the status quo show up, no I do not in fact live in a fancy house in the woods near the 3A routing. I live in a built-up urban area with pathetic transit options for its density that is being completely avoided by all planned transit upgrades in the near-future.

    While we’re rehashing the 3A/3C debate, though, there is no way the 3C option would be significantly more expensive than the tunnels in the woods, and it would serve far more people for almost the same price. How do we have such a dysfunctional planning system that refuses to reconsider the obviously wrong assumptions used to come up with the routing? Don’t throw good money after bad just because of momentum and a ‘place in line’ for federal funding. Build transit that’s actually worthwhile and serves people who already use transit that’s crammed to capacity.

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