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Minneapolis council members unhappy with Southwest LRT options for trains, tunnels

With either tunnel option, freight trains would remain in the corridor — a deal-breaker for council members.

MinnPost file photo by Raoul Benavides

Minneapolis City Council members were polite but not always pleased by what they heard Tuesday during a Metropolitan Council staff update on the Southwest Light Rail Line.

The report contained little in the way of new information, but there was an opportunity for council members to ask questions about what they see as troublesome issues.

Most of the attention was focused on the two tunnel options for the light rail line in the Kenilworth Corridor — one shallow, one deep — that would add $150 million to $330 million to the project cost.

With either option, freight trains would remain in the corridor — a situation that council members have said is a deal-breaker.

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The Metropolitan Council is expected to vote on the configuration of the transit project on Sept. 25. Local governments then would vote to give or withhold their consent.

Minneapolis favors an alignment that moves the current freight line from the Kenilworth Corridor to St. Louis Park, with only the light rail line running between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

“The real foundation of the decision was that the freight would be relocated,” said Council Member Robert Lilligren. “Minneapolis has been consistent every step of the way, through every decision made on this project that this is our position.”

The proposed deep-tunnel option would begin south of Lake Street and run 1.6 miles north.  It would be 30 to 50 feet below the surface and add $320 to $330 million to the cost.  Under that plan, the freight trains would run above the light rail tunnel, with the bike and pedestrian lanes adjacent to the surface tracks.

Jim Alexander, director of design and engineering for the Metropolitan Council, said more than a dozen borings have been conducted in the area for the proposed tunnels and studies made of the flow of groundwater.

“We anticipate building this where it is essentially water-tight, or a controlled system,” he said. “We still anticipate there would be some seepage that might come into the tunnel. That’s a typical situation when you have a tunnel under groundwater. There’s going to be some seepage.”

Alexander said he does not anticipate changing the lake levels or dumping the seepage into the lakes.

The option of a shallow tunnel has the light rail just below the surface with the pedestrian and bike trails overhead. The freight line would run next to the tunnels. This option would add $150 million to $160 million to the cost of the project.

In the shallow-tunnel option, trains would surface over the channel connecting Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles and require construction of a new bridge. It also would require removal of more trees from the corridor than under the deep-tunnel option, according to Alexander.

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“It does not inspire confidence with regard to the de-watering issues [seepage] to hear you say things like ‘We’re working to understand it,’ ” said Council Member Lisa Goodman. She called for a study of the water issues by an independent consultant or government agency. 

There apparently will not be another study of the water issues before the City Council is asked to vote on the plan approved by the Metropolitan Council.

“It’s difficult to make a decision in an ever-shifting environment,” said Lilligren, who suggested taking another look at some options that already have been rejected by the planners. “When you look at what we’re trying to solve — this very thorny problem in a built urbanized environment — there must be a better way to solve this.”

Early on, the project’s estimated cost, with light rail running on the surface and freight trains moved to St. Louis Park, was set at $1.25 billion. The tunnel options and changes to the freight line have boosted cost estimates to $1.58 billion to $1.82 billion.

“There are several questions, not the least of which is protecting the lakes, that have not been answered,” said Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy after the meeting. “We’re not angry — we’re just skeptical.”

The Metropolitan Council will continue seeking input on the project until its members meet on Sept. 11.