Park Board goes deeper into light rail tunnel study

Commissioners vote to extend a contract with the engineering firm studying tunnel options for Kenilworth Corridor

The channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake in winter. Credit: File photo

Under pressure to step out of the way, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board instead pushed ahead with its independent study of tunneling options for the Southwest Light Rail Transit line in January.

Since it won a $245,500 contract in November, engineering firm Brierly Associates has developed two potential options for tunneling beneath the waterway that connects Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. Jan. 7, on a 5–2 vote, the Park Board approved spending another $248,275 for a second phase of work that will further assess those two options, particularly their potential to impact the lakes, groundwater and nearby parkland.

Parks officials maintain the Metropolitan Council, the lead agency on the nearly $1.7-billion light rail project, did not thoroughly examine tunneling options before settling on a new set of bridges that will carry light rail trains, freight rail trains and pedestrian and bicycle traffic over the channel. Parks Commissioner John Erwin said his vote in favor of the Brierly contract wasn’t an attempt to delay or derail the project.

“I’m just trying to get the information I need to make a decision, and up until this point I haven’t been able to get that information,” Erwin said.

The vote came one day after Gov. Mark Dayton told an MPR News reporter the light rail project was “so bogged down now that I don’t know whether it’s going to be viable or not.”

“I think the people who want to clog up the process have in mind to have this fall apart, and they may get their way,” Dayton said, according to a transcript of the interview provided by the governor’s office.

The project is also facing a federal lawsuit aiming to halt work until a fuller review of its potential environmental impact is completed. A citizens group calling itself Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis argues last-minute changes to the route’s design in Minneapolis were never considered in an earlier environmental study.

State Sen. Scott Dibble, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said the Park Board was “doing the right thing.” Dibble said it was important to understand the implications of running light rail through Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor, which slices between lakes, parkland and residential neighborhoods.

He also acknowledged the pressure to keep up momentum on the project so that it doesn’t lose out on federal funding. Federal dollars were expected to cover half of all project costs, although language included in a recent appropriations bill led some to believe the federal commitment could drop to 40 percent, leaving the state, possibly, to make up the difference.

Dibble said he planned to get the state’s share written into this year’s transportation package.

“Of course delay is a threat, so I hope all of this occurs as expeditiously as possible,” he said. “But, if the Met Council isn’t going to step up and take the responsibility for environmental due diligence, some responsible party has to make sure that happens.”

Commissioners also took steps Jan. 7 to ensure they complete their tunnel studies before the project has advanced so far toward construction that a significant change in design wouldn’t be possible. A second resolution, passed on that same 5–2 margin, directed parks staff to write to the officials in the New Starts Program at the Federal Transportation Administration to request a meeting.

Commissioners Brad Bourn and Steffanie Musich dissented on both votes. Commissioners Anita Tabb and Annie Young were not present.

The Park Board argument for the tunnel study cites section 4(f) of the Federal Transportation Act, which restricts construction of transit projects on parkland unless “there is no prudent and feasible alternative.”

Met Council officials counter that their own staff spent 800 hours evaluating tunnel designs before elected officials serving on the project’s Corridor Management Committee settled on bridging the waterway, a cheaper and quicker-to-build alternative. They set aside plans for a shallow “cut-and-cover” tunnel that would’ve added $40 million–$80 million to the project’s cost and delayed its opening by a year, as well as a “deep bore” tunnel expected to cost three to four times that amount.

“The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s attempts to delay the Southwest light rail project are not only frustrating, but if successful will waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars,” outgoing Met Council Chair Sue Haigh wrote in a strongly worded letter to Park Board President Liz Wielinski.

Brierly, a firm with offices in six states that specializes in tunneling, began its own study of a cut-and-cover design, which involves digging a trench, building the tunnel and then covering it up. It also suggested a second alternative: a “jacked-box” design that involves either pushing or pulling a pre-constructed concrete tunnel from one side of the waterway to the other.

Brierly representatives told Park Board commissioners that jacked-box construction could allow summertime paddlers and winter skiers to continue to use the waterway during construction. The trench required for a cut-and-cover tunnel would temporarily sever the connection between the two lakes.

On the other hand, the jacked-box alternative still requires excavation of a trench; it just moves it away from the channel. In either case, construction can not interrupt traffic on the freight rail lines that run through the narrow Kenilworth Corridor and cross the waterway on an existing wood bridge.

The project manager for Southwest light rail, Mark Fuhrmann, said jacked-box construction was something Met Council engineers never considered. Although derived from a common technique for running pipes and sewers underground, “at this scale it’s not that common,” Fuhrmann said.

Commissioner Jon Olson said it was worth taking the time for the study, comparing the planned light rail connection between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie to the massive urban freeway projects of decades past.

“The effects are going to be felt for generations,” Olson said. “… I think it’s only prudent that we examine all the possibilities.”