LRT deep tunnel deep-sixed

Committee of local officials recommends Metropolitan Council drop costliest option for Southwest light rail

Freight trains, cyclists and pedestrians currently share the Kenilworth Corridor, the proposed site for future light rail transit. Credit: Dylan Thomas

The most expensive of three remaining options for the Southwest light rail transit route through Minneapolis appears to be off the table.

The $330-million “deep tunnel” option was unofficially eliminated Wednesday morning by a vote of the local officials who sit on the project’s Corridor Management Committee. There are two remaining proposals for squeezing light rail into the narrow Kenilworth Corridor: rerouting an existing freight rail line through St. Louis Park or digging a shallow tunnel for light rail trains.

A final vote on those remaining options by the Metropolitan Council, the lead agency on the project, was pushed back to Oct. 9. The Corridor Management Committee will meet twice more in September before hearing a draft recommendation from Met Council staff on Oct. 2.

Peter Wagenius, who represents Mayor R.T. Rybak on the committee, said the high cost of the deep tunnel was the main reason committee members voted the option down. Rybak has long maintained freight rail should move to make way for light rail.

“There was a vigorous conversation about the role of railroads today, and that was part and parcel and really central to the mayor being able to narrow-down the list of options,” Wagenius said.

Earlier this week, Hennepin County officials asked the Met Council to hire an outside firm to explore additional options for rerouting freight rail. There is strong opposition to the current rerouting proposal in St. Louis Park, where upgrading rail lines would require construction of tall berms and the taking of private property.

In an email, project spokesperson Laura Baenen said light rail planners were “exploring additional independent study” with Transportation Technology Center Inc., a railway testing and research firm based in Pueblo, Colo. But Baenen added planners haven’t “had a chance to even talk with TTCI” as of Wednesday.

Wagenius said the current rerouting plan “isn’t the only way to do this; it’s what the railroad wanted.”

“Frankly, it’s a Rolls Royce of freight rail rerouting,” he said, adding that the goal should be to maintain freight rail capacity, not improve it at the expense of the project.

The current rerouting plan is projected to cost $190 million–200 million. A shallow, cut-and-cover tunnel for light rail is estimated at $150 million–$160 million.

The total cost of the 15.8-mile light rail connection between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie is projected to come to at least $1.58 billion and possibly more depending on the resolution of the Kenilworth Corridor issue.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin had planned to propose a $1.5-billion cap on the project as a way to block the deep tunnel, but backed off when it was clear that option wouldn’t survive the meeting, McLaughlin’s aide Brian Shekleton said.

Still, Commissioner Gail Dorfman said a limit on spending, even at the cost of some stations, “makes sense.”

While a shallow tunnel is considered cheaper, Dorfman said she still preferred to relocate freight rail to St. Louis Park. Assured TTCI could work quickly, she held out hope the firm could deliver rerouting alternatives to plannners before the October vote.

Dorfman said she also shared concerns raised by Minneapolis officials about the possible environmental impact of the shallow tunnel. There are questions about how a trench dug between three lakes would interact with the local water table. And planners estimate tunnel construction could require the removal of 1,000 trees.

Courtney Kiernat of LRT Done Right said members of that citizens group considered the deep tunnel “the best of the bad” options, but added the decision to eliminate it wasn’t unexpected. LRT Done Right advocates a reconsideration of alternative light rail alignments through Minneapolis that would avoid the Kenilworth Corridor.

Project officials say that would endanger Southwest light rail’s place in the queue for federal funds, which are expected to cover about 50 percent of total costs. But Kiernat said a delay was preferable to the current options.

NOTE: This story was updated Sept. 10 to reflect a clarification on Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin’s stance on LRT funding provided by his aide, Brian Shekleton. McLaughlin’s office didn’t immediately return calls for comment before the original version of the story was published Sept. 4.