Council approves Southwest Light Rail Transit design

After cuts to design and budget, project again wins Minneapolis approval

Two Minneapolis legislators say an environmental report "falls significantly short" in addressing concerns about light rail and freight rail sharing the Kenilworth Corridor.

The Minneapolis City Council voted Friday to approve the pared-back design for the $1.7-billion Southwest Light Rail Transit project.

The city’s OK was granted despite lingering doubts over the Metropolitan Council’s plan to run the light rail trains through a tunnel beneath Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor. Council Member Lisa Goodman (Ward 7) predicted failure resulting in light rail trains running at-grade alongside freight trains, the exact outcome the city sought to avoid when it went into mediation with Met Council last summer.

Goodman, though, was on the losing side of the 10–3 vote to grant municipal consent for the 14.5-mile Green Line extension from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. Council Member Cam Gordon (Ward 2) and Council President Barb Johnson (Ward 4) joined her in voting against.

Met Council has now secured approvals from all five cities along the light rail route, as well as Hennepin County, for a second time. The agency initiated a second round of municipal consent votes after cutting two stations and more than a mile of track from its plans this summer.

The budget is now $250 million lighter than it was in June, but Southwest light rail remains the largest-ever public works project in state history. In Goodman’s view, it has become “too big to fail.”

City Council Member Blong Yang (Ward 5) said the council had been put in the unfortunate position of picking “winners and losers.”

“I guess in some ways we just have to balance what’s good for some folks over other folks,” Yang said.

“It’s hard to hear that we’re the designated losers,” Mary Pattock, who lives in the CIDNA neighborhood not far from the Kenilworth Corridor, said after the vote. “It’s hard to hear that from the City Council members, especially when what’s at stake is our safety and our community and possibly our lives.”

Pattock expressed concern about light rail trains running underneath and alongside freight traffic that regularly includes tankers filled with ethanol. She’s not alone: A resolution passed Sept. 15 by the council’s Transit and Public Works Committee seeks more openness about emergency response planning from Twin Cities & Western Railroad Company, the freight rail company that operates in the corridor.

Many who live near the line doubt a tunnel can be safely built, and those doubts were reinforced this summer when construction on an apartment project near the corridor was halted. Vibrations from pile driving at the former Tryg’s restaurant site are blamed for damaging nearby structures.

The Met Council plans to use a similar technique, known as “hydraulic press-in,” during tunnel construction.

“We’re familiar with the Tryg’s site,” Met Council engineer Jim Alexander said. “We’ve tried to talk with (the developer). We haven’t gotten a lot of information out of what has really been experienced in terms of vibration.”

A change to the project as significant as eliminating the tunnel would necessitate a third round of municipal consent, an outcome project leaders said they would work hard to avoid.

“We particularly don’t want that to happen because presumably at that time we’d be under construction, so we’d have a contractor with us doing the work and that would have to be suspended to go through the proceedings of another municipal consent process,” Alexander said. “That would not be in the best interest of our taxpayers paying for the project.”

CORRECTION: An attempt to clarify a statement by Jim Alexander, Metropolitan Council’s director of design and engineering for the Southwest Light Rail Transit project, unintentionally misconstrued its meaning. According to a Met Council spokesperson, when Alexander said he’d “tried to talk with folks” about construction at the former Tryg’s restaurant site, he was referring to the project developers and their geotechnical consultant, not neighbors.