Southwest LRT tunnels receive cautious consideration

Rerouting freight remains on the table for Kenilworth Corridor

Options for tunneling a future Southwest light rail transit (LRT) line beneath the Kenilworth Corridor will get a close look in the month leading up to a key Metropolitan Council vote on the project.

The Met Council also will consider rerouting freight trains through St. Louis Park to make room for LRT in the Kenilworth Corridor, a narrow strip of green space that contains both a railway and the Cedar Lake Trail, a bike and pedestrian path. Just what to do with the freight rail line is one of the major unanswered questions for LRT planners, who aim to have the 15.8-mile transit connection between Eden Prairie and downtown Minneapolis open by 2018.

Whatever solution they come up with, dealing with freight rail is expected to add $120 million–$420 million to the estimated $1.25 billion cost of the project. Minneapolis’ support of the project had been contingent on relocating freight rail, and Peter Wagenius, Mayor R.T. Rybak’s policy director and an advisor on transportation issues, said co-locating freight and light rail in the corridor at-grade remained a “totally unacceptable outcome.”

Still, city leaders and some residents along the corridor were cautiously open to the possibility of tunnels, two of the eight items on a menu of options for the corridor presented in mid-July by the Met Council.

“The biggest issue of all is the issue of a guarantee,” Wagenius said. “We can not have a situation where a tunnel is planned but a tunnel is not built.”

Three options

Of those eight options, the Met Council has identified three scenarios as the most likely: a shallow, “cut-and-cover” LRT tunnel at cost of $235 million–$250 million; a deep LRT tunnel, the most expensive option, at a cost of $405 million–$420 million; or rerouting freight rail on the Brunswick Central alignment through St. Louis Park at a cost of $275 million–$295 million.

The Met Council included a second rerouting option for St. Louis Park, but Brunswick Central is slightly less expensive and will get special attention in part because it offers more safety benefits, said Laura Baenen, an agency spokeswoman.

Either way, diverting Twin Cities & Western Railroad trains from the Kenilworth Corridor would send about 20 additional trains per week through St. Louis Park, tripling the current traffic volume on that line. Both options also require relocation of the existing railway, the acquisition of several dozen public and private properties and changes to the city’s street grid. There remains strong opposition to rerouting in St. Louis Park.

Meanwhile, some Minneapolis residents were surprised to learn Met Council planners now think they can avoid residential property acquisitions along the Kenilworth Corridor, even under most co-location scenarios.

Met Council Rail Projects Director Mark Fuhrmann said in July a recent land survey turned up a 10-foot-wide strip of tax forfeited land “near the tightest pinch-point” in the Kenilworth Corridor, land now controlled by Hennepin County. In addition, Southwest LRT planners had previously counted on a 25-foot separation between freight tracks and private property, but have since learned they can get by with less than half that distance, Fuhrmann added.

“Bait-and-switch”

That hasn’t softened opposition to co-location among many Kenilworth Corridor residents, including John Erickson of the Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhood, whose front door is just about 20 feet from the freight rail tracks. And Erickson said it wasn’t yet clear whether the Met Council’s shallow-tunnel option would lessen the potential noise and vibration impacts from an at-grade LRT line. With more than 200 LRT trains expected to run the corridor each day, both are of significant concern to neighbors.

Courtney Cushing Kiernat of LRT Done Right, a citizens group opposed to co-location, said there were unanswered questions about how shallow tunnel construction might impact the Cedar Lake Trail and the ribbon of woods and prairies it runs through.

“Urban green space is just so precious,” Kiernat said.

Erickson said the deep-tunnel option — which would involve boring two parallel tunnels up to 50 feet underground — “takes care of almost every problem people have,” but its price tag raises red flags. Kiernat agreed.

The phrase “bait-and-switch” came up often during a July 17 public meeting hosted by the Met Council, with several speakers expressing concern that the county might embark on a deep tunnel project, discover it’s unworkable or unaffordable and resort to routing Southwest LRT at grade level.

Wagenius, who attended the meeting, said the recent history of regional LRT projects “provided plenty of reason” to be skeptical about tunnels. They’ve been proposed several times, he noted, but the 1.4-mile Blue Line LRT tunnel beneath the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was the only one ever built.

Asked to address the concerns, Fuhrmann said a significant change would require the Met Council, under state law, to seek Minneapolis’ OK on the project — known as “municipal consent” — all over again.

Growing costs

Given the city’s strong opposition to co-location, many were surprised to see the Met Council was still considering that possibility this late in the process. But the agency is following a directive from the Federal Transportation Administration, Fuhrmann explained.

He said freight rail relocation had been considered a separate issue from LRT construction, which is why it wasn’t included in earlier budget estimates for the project. But when the FTA allowed the project to begin preliminary engineering in 2011, it also required planners to bundle freight relocation into the larger LRT project.

Fuhrmann said the Met Council was just beginning to talk with the project’s funding partners about the additional costs, but the funding split is expected to remain the same, with federal dollars still covering about half of total project expenses — a price tag now approaching $1.7 billion under the deep tunnel scenario.

The Met Council is scheduled to select one relocation or co-location option in an Aug. 28 vote.