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How the Met Council managed to let the Southwest LRT wall become a big deal

Metro Transit
Rendering of a crash wall intended to separate existing freight tracks from the proposed light rail line in case of a derailment.

Metro Transit is sensitive about the wall.

When the regional transit agency announced in mid-August that they’d finally concluded negotiations with BNSF Railway to share a relatively short stretch of the company’s track in Minneapolis, they also disclosed what they had to offer in return.

If the agency wanted the railroad to agree to share four-tenths of a mile of right-of-way — something needed for the Southwest Light Rail Transit extension from Target Field to Eden Prairie — it would have to give quite a bit. Legally, financially and physically.

That included a crash wall intended to separate existing freight tracks from the proposed light rail line in case of a derailment. The wall — a “corridor protection system” in engineer talk — would run for 1.4 miles, from just south of  where the right-of-way abuts Catholic Charities Higher Ground to just north of where the Kenilworth Trail merges with the Cedar Lake Trail.

When they announced the BNSF deal in August, Metro Transit said the wall would be three-feet thick and up to 10 feet high. That “10-feet” part got much of the attention. “It’s a really big wall and I don’t think we can fool people,” said Met Council Member Gail Dorfman of St. Louis Park said during the August council meeting. “We need to work with the neighborhood and make it the best we can. But we’re not going to hide it. We’re going to see it.”

On Thursday, Dorfman was among the invitees, along with elected officials and a few reporters, who toured the area where the wall will be built. They also got a preview of maps and photo renderings of construction plans, what it will look like and what will be lost during construction. The same renderings will be presented Friday to the project’s Corridor Management Committee, made up of elected and appointed officials from the governments of communities along the SWLRT route.

At the site, stakes in the ground showed the route of the wall and its height (as do the pink paint marks on the piers of the I-394 bridge), which are currently visible to bicyclists and walkers on the Cedar Lake Trail.

As currently designed, the wall isn’t going to be 10 feet high along its entire length. It will be shorter where it runs adjacent to light rail tracks that have been elevated for drainage and grade purposes. Its also located in one of the less-than-scenic parts of the route: It will be built where the tracks bend to the south after leaving a station in the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market area and pass through an industrial area before running past the city’s storage yards and beneath I-394, before finally ending near the Bryn Mawr Station.

The wall will be most visible where the right-of-way passes the Bryn Mawr Meadows Park and sports fields. Park users, as well as residents in the houses that abut the park, could see the wall, depending on the season.

An ‘ah-ha’ moment

After Thursday’s tour, state Rep. Ray Dehn said it helped him understand how the barrier would look and why it was requested by BNSF. “It doesn’t seem that the wall is going to have as obtrusive of an impact as was initially put out there,” Dehn said. “After seeing the location, after seeing all of the obstacles, I understand why it was requested to be there. It equips me with the knowledge I need to discuss it in detail with those residents that want to have a conversation about it.

“But this would have much, much easier had there been a conversation with the community before it was rolled out,” Dehn said.

Brian Lamb, Brian Runzel and Jim Alexander
MinnPost file photo by Peter Callaghan
Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb, SWLRT Director of Construction Brian Runzel and SWLRT Project Director Jim Alexander discussing the location of a crash wall added to the project in August.

He also said the tour provided an “ah-ha” moment when he asked about ongoing negotiations with BNSF to use eight-miles of railroad right of way for the Bottineau Line from Target Field to Brooklyn Park. “The Met Council didn’t want to fight hard against BNSF regarding this because they have another negotiation that’s going to be much, much more difficult than this,” Dehn said.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the tour helped him visualize where the wall will be located, and how the design already included some crash protection walls even before BNSF demanded more. “I think the impacts are much less than you might think when you first hear about this wall,” he said. “I think it’s pretty eye opening when you actually get out there and see how far away the wall will be in many instances, how it actually sits vis a vis the light rail and where that’s actually gonna be versus the existing existing freight. It shows how modest the change is to the original design.”

Liability issue, timing also questioned

The wall has become a target for those who live near the route, many of whom already opposed the rail extension through the narrow and beloved Kenilworth Corridor. Minneapolis elected officials — both from the city and the Legislature — have also complained to the Met Council about the wall.

“As elected officials representing residents of Minneapolis, we are surprised at the lack of information about the proposed barrier wall that has been provided to us,” wrote Mayor Betsy Hodges in a letter cosigned by state Sen. Scott Dibble, state Rep. Frank Hornstein and four city council members: Lisa Goodman, Kevin Reich, Lisa Bender and Cam Gordon. They said they think the changes are substantial enough to trigger a supplemental environmental impact statement, which they said would help “reassure the public that the right questions will ultimately be answered.”

The Met Council disagrees that the wall is enough to trigger additional environmental review, something that would add months to an already troubled timeline. Project Director Jim Alexander said Metro Transit staff does think the wall could trigger federal rules that require mitigation if a project adversely impacts historic resources, however, and the BNSF rail corridor would qualify as such.

It wasn’t just the size and length of the wall that drew fire, though. The same BNSF deal requires Metro Transit to accept much of the legal liability for any accident involving freight trains and light rail trains. It also calls for Metro Transit to challenge any state or city laws that restrict the types of cargo in the corridor. If the city or state tried to ban oil trains, for example, Metro Transit would have to take steps to block the ban and agree to stop running light rail trains if it failed. In their letter to the Met Council, Minneapolis officials wrote that are “deeply concerned” about those provisions.

The timing of the wall also alarmed some observers. Just days after the final agreement was reached, the staff presented it to a Met Council committee. Two days later it was presented and approved by the Met Council itself.

Brian Runzel, Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff
MinnPost file photo by Peter Callaghan
Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff points to a 10-foot measuring pole held by SWLRT Director of Construction Brian Runzel near the Linden Yard House.

Why the rush? Metro Transit staff said they had to move along their application process to the federal government for half of the $1.858 billion project cost. But since then, Met Council rejected the bids it received for the bulk of the project’s construction work because of issues of cost and other flaws, and has pushed back the timing of its federal application. Yet the railroad deal has moved ahead anyway, which means the project staff is left with designing what could be a $20 million added expense.

Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff said the demands made on SWLRT by BNSF are similar to demands made elsewhere. She said that a recent tour of a new light rail line in Denver showed a similar crash wall. And Alexander said BNSF has a strategy of maintaining control over its right of way. On the corridor to be shared with SWLRT, it wants to preserve the potential of building a second line.

“They’ve been here a long, long time and they plan to be here long, long time,” Alexander said of BNSF. “Call it their 150-year plan.”

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Stephen Brown on 09/29/2017 - 12:24 pm.

    Kill Southwest LRT in favor of rapid bus service

    Given the building delays, project mismanagement, and continuously increasing costs, it seems like the Southwest LRT route should be cancelled and funds better utilized in the creation of a Twin Cities wide rapid bus service. It’s more cost effective, provides greater flexibility in meeting needs of those in greatest need of transportation service, facilitates the transportation of more people in the same time, and could more easily compliment the existing Twin Cities transportation infrastructure.

    A quick study to reference with numbers:

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/03/2017 - 12:43 pm.

      Normally, I am a huge fan of light rail, but if the interested parties are going to indulge in endless dithering about the details, improved bus service in that corridor would be a terrific interim step.

      The Excelsior-Grand area and Hopkins are both potentially transit-friendly areas, and Methodist Hospital is a major source of employment, and yet, trying to get to or from any of these by bus in the middle of the day is nearly impossible.

      Turning the #12 in to a frequent service bus line to Hopkins and maybe even to Excelsior would serve as a test for the need for transit in that area.

      In order to build a transit system for the future instead of according to outdated ideas of when people take transit, Metro Transit needs to shift its focus away from “How can we get people to work and back Monday through Friday?” They actually do that job pretty well. Buses arrive downtown and the major shopping centers in the morning and leave in the afternoon.

      Instead, Metro Transit needs to ask, “With increased environmental consciousness and the growing number of people who cannot drive due to income, age, or disability, how can we make it easy for people to live without a car, not only for commuting to work at any hour, given today’s many non-standard work schedules, but also for shopping, entertainment, and errands?”

      If the planners at Metro Transit are not thinking beyond the M-F 9-5 commuters, if they are not looking at whether connections between lines work, if they are not covering the destinations that people need to go to, they are not doing their job.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/29/2017 - 12:36 pm.

    Not mentioned enough

    by the various entities concerned is that much of this is being driven, not by Met Council, but by the very private entity with the acronym BNSF. Railroads, using their time-and-law-honored “We were here first” argument, are famously intractable in negotiations involving right-of-way, or anything else that might, even faintly and theoretically, affect their operations or convenience, and that’s true whether the other party is public or private.

    It takes, literally, years to even get the railroad’s attention for road crossings so rough they have to be negotiated at a crawl, and in one of my former communities, where I was a planning commissioner at the time, the local BNSF division essentially refused to maintain its own property, ignoring the city’s snow removal ordinance and citizen complaints about snow-and-ice-covered sidewalks. The city I lived in had to use its own employees to clear the snow and ice from sidewalks on two sides of the half-a-block-sized lot owned by the railroad—it was, in the end, far less of an expense and headache for the city to take on the extra maintenance burden rather then file a lawsuit against the railroad for negligence, which would have taken years, and many taxpayer dollars, to resolve.

  3. Submitted by Tony Kelly on 09/29/2017 - 02:25 pm.

    This is trivial.

    No one who is familiar with this corridor can seriously claim that this wall imperials the aesthetics of the affected area. If anything, it will also function as a sound wall shielding LRT noises (and 394) to Bryn Mawr Park. The benefits of getting this rail done far exceed this. Build the LRT!

    • Submitted by William Anderson on 09/29/2017 - 06:49 pm.

      Don’t be fooled by the spin

      Right – aesthetics would be trivial. Its not about aesthetics. That’s the reason for the fast spin.

      Peter McLaughlin and the Met Council have deliberately framed the narrative to evoke that reaction “trivial”. This is disingenuous at best on the part of public officials charged with responsibility, and a modicum of honesty when sharing information about a public project that has significant – in fact immeasurable –public risk.

      The actual reason for the wall: The railroad industry wants nothing to do with the unreasonable danger possible by putting electric lines near ethanol or oil freight or any other flammable freight.

      The danger of flammable freight near electrified SWLRT is reason the Met Council lobbied – successfully — in the most recent legislative session for a bill to minimize financial liability for the railroads should an accident occur. Due to it own reckless planning, the Met Council must step out of its regional planning role into one of protecting corporate liability and take on the responsibility and cost to defend the railroads if any city attempts to ban oil trains or takes legal action against it.

      “The same BNSF deal requires Metro Transit to accept much of the legal liability for any accident involving freight trains and light rail trains. It also calls for Metro Transit to challenge any state or city laws that restrict the types of cargo in the corridor. If the city or state tried to ban oil trains, for example, Metro Transit would have to take steps to block the ban and agree to stop running light rail trains if it failed. In their letter to the Met Council, Minneapolis officials wrote that are “deeply concerned” about those provisions.”

      The Met Council and the County may point fingers at the railroads. But they are the public officials now acting as representatives of a large, corporate entity against Minneapolis elected officials acting on behalf of citizen safety and citizen rights.

  4. Submitted by David Markle on 09/29/2017 - 04:32 pm.

    A bigger picture

    While this matter seems a mere kerfuffle, it’s yet another example of the Met Council’s lack of transparency and accountability.

    We need a Met Council elected directly by voters, one that’s accountable to voters, not to the Governor (in theory, it seems) nor to local officials (as demanded by certain officials and politicians from the Metro area’s outer counties).

    In this example we see that the Met Council failed to satisfactorily inform affected residents (voters) or local officials. But I believe the bigger historical picture also demonstrates that the Met Council tends to kow-tow to local officials rather than serve the needs of the Metropolitan area as a whole.

    Direct election of commissioners from districts of equal population is the best answer.

  5. Submitted by Mike martin on 09/30/2017 - 02:33 am.

    First photo distorted photo shop

    The first photo showing the LRT & I 394 is very badly photo shopped The bike in the foreground is really about 50 feet below I 394 which is in the background. I believe there are at least 4 loops of the helix(spiral for bikes & walkers) to get from I 394 to the Kenilworth corridor, not the 2 that are shown.

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