Southwest LRT opening pushed back

Delays add to cost

As an impasse over the Kenilworth Corridor's fate drags on, costs are rising for Southwest light rail. Credit: File photo

It now appears a Southwest light rail transit line will begin operations in 2019 at the earliest, a year later than the 2018 opening date long projected by planners.

Opening date could come as late as 2021 depending on how an impasse over its route through Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor is resolved, Metropolitan Council planners said Wednesday. That’s the timeline if a freight rail line is first rerouted out of the Kenilworth Corridor to St. Louis Park, as Minneapolis leaders would prefer.

Hopes for that outcome dimmed Wednesday during a gathering of local government and agency representatives at the project’s Corridor Management Committee meeting. Representatives from Hopkins, St. Louis Park and Minnetonka agreed that the time and expense of rerouting freight had essentially pushed that option off of the table.

At the same time, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin warned the project had to move forward soon or risk losing its place in the queue for federal funds.

“We dither at our peril,” McLaughlin said.

A grant through the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program is expected to cover half the more than $1.5-billion projected cost of the project, which would extend the Metro Transit’s Green Line to Eden Prairie. Since 2013, progress on some of the other New Starts projects around the country has leapfrogged Southwest LRT.

There is also uncertainty about the future availability of New Starts funds, especially as they are opened to “legacy” transit systems, like the subway systems in New York City and Los Angeles. It’s unclear how much funding will be available next year.

“People need to understand this is virtually all bad news here,” McLaughlin said.

The impasse pits Minneapolis against St. Louis Park and Twin Cities and Western Railroad, which operates on the Kenilworth Corridor.

Minneapolis wants TC&W trains rerouted through St. Louis Park to preserve the corridor’s recreational trail while at the same time making room for light rail. St. Louis Park and TC&W argue the reroute would be less safe, and TC&W and its customers insist it would also be less efficient, and therefore more costly, to operate on.

Federal railroad rules also give TC&W leverage against the Met Council, which would likely have to argue for a reroute in front of the Surface Transportation Board or a Minnesota judge. The delay would add tens of millions to the project’s final price tag.

There are several options for co-location of light rail and freight rail in the Kenilworth Corridor, including the digging of two shallow tunnels for LRT trains. The Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution in March reaffirming their opposition to any kind of co-location.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has also been skeptical of co-location, in part because the shallow-tunnel plan requires trains to surface briefly to cross the historically significant Kenilworth Channel on a bridge. The waterway cuts across the Kenilworth Corridor and connects Cedar Lake to Lake of the Isles.

Responding to those concerns, Met Council planners unveiled two twists on the shallow-tunnel plan in early March. While they differ in length, both would send LRT trains under the waterway instead of over it.

That makes four potential options for Southwest LRT, and the Met Council laid out the clearest comparison of them yet on Wednesday. The figures below include the projected total project costs and opening date under each scenario.

— Shallow tunnels: $1.598 billion–$1.603 billion; 2019 opening

— Shallow tunnel under channel (long): $1.708 billion–$1.738 billion; 2020 opening

— Shallow tunnel under channel (short): $1.673 billion­–$1.693 billion; 2020 opening

— Freight relocation: $1.688 billion–$1.708 billion; 2021 opening

There’s a third factor to consider. If the southern terminus of the line is extended to Mitchell Road in Eden Prairie, final costs increase by $75 million–$80 million.