Community leaders endorse shallow tunnels for light rail

Recommendation heads to Metropolitan Council for April 9 vote

Shallow tunnels would carry light rail trains beneath the Kenilworth Corridor's biking and walking path. Credit: File photo

A plan for Southwest Light Rail Transit that includes two shallow tunnels through Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor won approval from a panel of local elected officials and agency representatives Wednesday.

The project’s Corridor Management Committee voted 11–2, with Mayor Betsy Hodges dissenting over what she termed a “fundamental failure of fairness” in the planning process. Hodges was joined by Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, who primarily objected to the escalating cost of the metro area’s largest transit project, now projected at close to $1.7 billion.

The recommendation goes next to the Metropolitan Council, where a vote on the project’s overall scope and budget is set for April 9. If talk around the committee table is any indication, the Met Council may consider dropping the northernmost of two tunnels, cutting up to $60 million from the project.

Either way, the regional policy-making body is poised to endorse a plan Minneapolis city leaders have never accepted: co-location freight rail and light rail in the Kenilworth Corridor.

In 2009, Hodges, then a City Council member, voted with a majority of her colleagues to select the Kenilworth route on the understanding freight traffic would shift to tracks in St. Louis Park. But St. Louis Park never accepted that plan, and Twin Cities & Western Railroad used the considerable leverage it is given under federal rules to all but kill a reroute.

Had they known the obstacles then, Hodges said, the City Council might have selected a route that sent light rail trains through more densely populated Uptown, instead. She blamed the Met Council for not building enough time into the planning process to take the reroute debate before the Surface Transportation Board, where it would likely be settled, and for giving TC&W “veto power” over the plan.

“That’s a point that needs to be raised, that this reroute was never taken seriously,” she said.

Hodges said St. Louis Park won and Minneapolis lost on almost every point of contention in the Southwest light rail debate, a statement that Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin called “astounding.”

“To say that Minneapolis has lost on everything that they care about I think fails to keep an eye on what the real prize is here, which is regional transportation system that promotes economic prosperity and provides economic opportunity to the people of our region,” McLaughlin said.

Other committee members emphasized the benefits of a new transit line over the impacts on some who live near it. Minnetonka Mayor Terry Schneider said the development of a light rail network was a “game-changer” for the region.

“Conversely, if we don’t get it, if we stumble on our toes and just can’t get our act put together, it’s going to put us way behind every other region in the country that is growing and attracting talent and doing the right thing,” Schneider said.

One tunnel, or two?

The debate among committee members followed several hours of public testimony. The dozens of speakers included Andrew Hestness, vice president of the Native American Community Development Institute in Phillips, who urged planners to preserve the 21st Street Station in Kenwood because it offers the most direct access to the line — and the employment centers it will eventually serve — from Franklin Avenue bus routes.

That station is eliminated under the shallow-tunnel plan as proposed. The plan calls for two tunnels, one on either side of a waterway that connects Cedar Lake to Lake of the Isles. Trains would surface briefly in-between to cross the waterway on a bridge.

But the northern tunnel could be eliminated, preserving the 21st Street Station, which is planned for an area just north of the channel bridge, near East Cedar Lake Beach. Mark Furhmann of the Met Council’s project staff said the change would cut an estimated $55 million–$60 million from the total cost of the project.

During the meeting, Hodges was asked to offer an opinion on the northern tunnel. She deferred, stating that Minneapolis’ preference was to reroute freight rail and not to have shallow tunnels at all.

Edina Mayor Jim Hovland said a tunnel was necessary to get light rail trains through a narrow “pinch point” at the southern end of the Kenilworth Corridor, but not the wider corridor area of the channel. Hovland wondered if it wouldn’t be better to find other ways to mitigate the noise and visual impacts of the trains.

“I think it deserves a conversation, especially in light of the [Minneapolis] mayor’s comments that Minneapolis didn’t ask for or want the shallow tunnels,” Hovland said.

Asked if the savings, amounting to less than 4 percent of the total project costs, were worth it, Hovland responded: “I think it makes a difference if you care about spending people’s money.”

Several others on the committee seemed to agree, including McLaughlin, who said elimination of the northern tunnel was “up for consideration.”

“There’s a considerable amount of money to be saved,” he said.