After surprising city officials with a new 10-foot-high, mile-long crash wall along the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit corridor through Minneapolis, the Metropolitan Council laid out plans in late September for elected officials and the public to have input on its design.
The Met Council will also review the wall’s possible impacts on the environment and a railroad corridor that has been identified as potentially historic. Those plans were made public about a week after Minneapolis leaders, including Mayor Betsy Hodges, described the wall as a “significant and substantial change” to the $1.9-billion project and called on the agency to “promptly” conduct an environmental review in a letter to Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff.
“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,” the letter stated. “We are also surprised about the lack of a public process and open community engagement about a subject that is important to our residents.”
The letter was co-signed by state Sen. Scott Dibble, Rep. Frank Hornstein and City Council members Cam Gordon, Lisa Goodman, Kevin Reich and Lisa Bender.
The wall was added to the SWLRT project less than a week before the Met Council voted in August to approve a series of agreements with two freight rail operators that will share their rail corridors with the light-rail trains. The crash wall will separate freight and light-rail traffic in the Wayzata Subdivision, which is owned by BNSF and extends from roughly Interstate 394 to the North Loop.
Met Council officials have previously said they were not able to discuss negotiations with the railroads while they were ongoing. While SWLRT plans previously included shorter sections of wall in the Wayzata Subdivision, the new plans connect and lengthen those sections.
That has raised concerns in nearby neighborhoods about the visual impacts of the wall, especially if it becomes a target for graffiti, as well as the possibility that it could reflect and amplify the noise from passing freight trains into residential neighborhoods, said Barry Shade, a member of the Bryn Mawr Neighborhood Association board.
“It just introduced a whole bunch of other questions,” Shade said.
Met Council officials met with the BMNA and other neighborhood organizations in mid-September and later in the month led two tours of the Wayzata subdivision for local elected officials and reporters. A community open house was scheduled for Nov. 15, at a time and location to be determined.
SWLRT project director Jim Alexander said a community workgroup would have input on the design of the wall, which could use color, texture, vegetation or other features to soften its visual impact. Along many portions of the corridor, the grade difference between freight and light rail tracks will make the crash wall appear shorter than 10 feet to viewers on the light rail side of the barrier.
The design process will also be guided by a historic review. That review is required because the Minnesota Department of Transportation previously determined the Wayzata Subdivision was part of a much longer railroad corridor — stretching from Minneapolis to the North Dakota border — that may be historically significant, Alexander told the members of the SWLRT Corridor Management Committee on Sept. 29.
Alexander said Met Council had already begun an environmental review of the changes to the project, which also include shifting a nearby bicycle and pedestrian path. Those findings will be submitted in a memorandum to the Federal Transit Administration, which is expected to determine by December whether a deeper environmental study is necessary.
Tchourumoff said that a much more consequential decision by the FTA, on whether to award the full-funding grant agreement expected to cover half of all project costs, was now not expected until late 2018.
The local elected officials on the Corridor Management Committee also quizzed Alexander on the cost of the wall and its potential impact on the project budget. Alexander said it would “more than likely” be dealt with as a change-order to the civil construction contract after it is awarded.
While no decision had yet been made on how to pay for the crash wall, Alexander said it would likely be paid for out of the project’s contingency fund. That totals close to $300 million, or about 16 percent of the total budget.
After the meeting, Alexander estimated the cost of the wall at about $20 million. It may require a support system of piers or pilings because of the unstable soils in the Wayzata Subdivision, which runs through the Bassett Creek Valley area.
Beyond its discussion of the wall, the Mayor Hodges’ letter reiterated local officials’ concern with another provision of the shared-corridor agreement with BNSF, one that would potentially require Met Council to challenge in court any future law restricting freight traffic in the shared corridor. That could put the Met Council in the position of fighting in court on behalf of BNSF against either the city or Hennepin County.
“Having not been able to read the actual agreement, but only Met Council staff’s descriptions of it, we cannot confirm the situation,” the letter stated.
The letter described a supplemental environmental impact statement as “the best remaining tool to reassure the public that the right questions will ultimately be answered.”
Met Council also agreed to take out a $295-million railroad liability policy to cover any incident involving both freight and light-rail trains in the BNSF-owned corridor. Met Council has a similar agreement regarding the Northstar Commuter Rail Line, which also operates on BNSF right-of-way.
SWLRT is a 14.5-mile extension of the METRO Green Line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie and the most expensive public works project in state history. The Met Council on Sept. 20 rejected all four bids for civil construction work on the project, which ranged from $796.5 million to nearly $1.1 billion, saying they went beyond the project budget and weren’t completely responsive to the plans.
That decision pushed the repeatedly delayed opening date for the line into 2022. The Met Council now plans to trim costs from the project before reopening the civil construction contract for bids in October. It will also consider offering contractors a stipend for the bidding process, and may adjust the project’s timeline to control costs. Alexander said a labor shortage was a “big deal” for the bidders.
“That’s going to be the biggest challenge,” he told the Corridor Management Committee.
A new deadline for bids was set for January, and Met Council expects to award the contract in April. Tchuroumoff said that timeline would keep almost the entire 2018 construction season in play.