Met Council staff recommends shallow tunnels for light rail

After six months of additional study, Met Council prepares for vote delayed since October

The Kenilworth Corridor Credit: File photo

Nearly six months of additional study of Southwest Light Rail Transit options hasn’t changed the opinion held by Metropolitan Council planners.

On Monday, they announced they still favor routing light rail trains through two “shallow tunnels” in Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor, the geographical flash point in the ongoing debate over the transit project. Minneapolis’ strong objections to that plan led Met Council to put off a key vote on the project last October.

That vote is now set for April 9. If approved, the nearly $1.7-billion light rail line would open in 2019.

The city has opposed any plan that would keep Twin Cities & Western Railroad freight traffic in the narrow Kenilworth Corridor while also adding light rail trains. But the railroad has refused to accept rerouting of its trains through St. Louis Park, and outside of Minneapolis there appears to be little support for bringing the issue before the Surface Transportation Board or a Minnesota judge.

The delay began after a closed-door meeting of metro leaders in Gov. Mark Dayton’s office Oct. 15. Putting off the vote allowed Met Council to further study freight rerouting options, as well as the potential impact of the tunnels on the Kenilworth Corridor and the Chain of Lakes.

A new plan to send trains through St. Louis Park was developed by independent consultant TranSystems. TranSystems said the design complied with federal safety standards for the railroad industry, but TC&W maintained the route would be less safe and more costly to operate than its Kenilworth Corridor track.

TranSystems’ alternative did not soften resistance to rerouting in St. Louis Park, either. Many residents remain strongly opposed to a plan that would increase the number of trains rolling through their town and also require some taking of private property when tracks are redesigned.

The shallow-tunnel plan, though, raises a different set of concerns.

The Kenilworth Corridor runs between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles, and both the city and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board pushed for additional study of the tunnels’ potential to impact the Chain of Lakes. A water resources study released in January found “no fatal flaws” in the plan, but also recommended additional monitoring of groundwater during and after construction.

Met Council planners recommend two shallow, cut-and-cover tunnels along a 5,800-foot stretch of the Kenilworth Corridor. Light rail trains would surface briefly between the tunnels to cross a waterway on a bridge.

That waterway, the Kenilworth Channel, connects Cedar Lake to Lake of the Isles and is used year-round by skiers and paddlers. Met Council planners developed a twist on the shallow tunnel plan that would have sent light rail trains under the waterway, but they aren’t forwarding that recommendation. It would have raised costs by up to $140 million and delayed the line’s opening to 2020.

Planners are also recommending the final design for the 15.8-mile extension of the Green Line include Mitchell Road Station in Eden Prairie. That accounts for $75 million–$80 million of the total projected cost.

The public has two upcoming opportunities to weigh-in on the recommendation.

Public testimony will be heard during the next meeting of local government and agency representatives on the Corridor Management Committee. The meeting is 8:30 a.m.–11:30 a.m. Wednesday at Beth El Synagogue, 5224 W. 26th St., St. Louis Park.

The Met Council will also hear public comment when it votes the following week on the project’s scope and budget. That meeting is 4 p.m. April 9 in Council chambers at 390 Robert St. N., St. Paul.