Making way for light rail

If all goes as planned, the Southwest Light Rail Transit line projected to open in 2018 will zip riders from Target Field to the West Lake Street station in less than eight minutes and complete its 15-mile run to Eden Prairie in just over half-an-hour.

Three-car trains will make the trip, in one on direction or the other, nearly 200 times each day. Each of them will pass within 20 feet or so of the front door of John Erickson’s townhouse in the Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhood, not even a stone’s throw from tracks that now carry just few lumbering freight trains.

All things considered, one might say Erickson is being magnanimous when he says, “If you did this right … it’s a win-win for everybody.”

But Erickson offers a caveat, and it’s one on the minds of residents all along the Kenilworth railroad corridor these days: “By ‘right,’ I mean if you mitigated it properly.”

The Oct. 12 release of the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) on the LRT line kicked-off a 60-day public comment period on its findings, and groups of neighbors in West Calhoun, CIDNA, Kenwood rushed to dissect the 1,000-page document and prepare their responses before the Dec. 11 deadline. They’ll be asking for protections from noise, vibrations and other impacts where the line runs past homes, parks, lakes and historic properties all packed more closely together than on most suburban sections of the route.

The line also passes through Bryn Mawr, but there the emphasis shifts from protection to development. A future light rail line could be a key piece in the Basset Creek Valley redevelopment, a long-range plan to build office space and housing on city-owned land just west of downtown.

Signs of progress

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman called the release of the study a “significant milestone” for what would be the region’s third light rail line after Hiawatha, which opened in 2004, and the Central Corridor line, set to begin operation in 2014. The new line would tie in directly to the Central Corridor for one non-stop connection between Eden Prairie and downtown St. Paul.

A week earlier, the White House announced Southwest LRT would be included in its “We Can’t Wait” initiative on transportation projects. It’s anticipated to shave several months off of the planning process.

“It feels like after many, many delays and sort of fits and starts that everything is lining up now,” Dorfman said.

The $1.25-billion rail project would improve connections between the core cities and the southwestern suburbs, get thousands of drivers out of their cars and onto light rail trains and spur economic development along the 15-mile corridor, according to the study. It finds the pros for jobs and the environment outweigh the cons, including moderate to severe noise impacts for hundreds of homes and businesses close to the rail line in Minneapolis.

The preferred alignment enters the city just west of Lake Calhoun and runs to downtown along the Kenilworth Corridor, the same rail pathway followed by the Cedar Lake Trail for bicycles and pedestrians. The study considers several alternative alignments, but concludes they would add significant cost without increasing benefits.

The study also supports relocation of freight rail from the Kenilworth Corridor to St. Louis Park. Making room for both in the same rail corridor would require the acquisition of about 60 housing units, including those of Erickson and his neighbors, and could disturb parkland near Cedar Lake, it notes.

Points of concern

Assuming freight rail will go and his townhouse will remain, Erickson’s focus now minimizing the noise, vibrations and visual impact of passing light rail cars.

“For us, the primary thing is a physical barrier between us and the train,” he said.

It’s the same story in Kenwood, further north, where neighbors have discussed using landscaping or trees to limit noise impacts. Residents on one dead-end block of Upton Avenue South are also concerned about access to their homes, which can only be reached by crossing tracks on the Kenilworth Corridor.

One of them, Ned Foster, said routing both freight and light rail on the corridor “would be a disaster.”

A significant concern in both CIDNA and Kenwood is the proposed Cedar Lake Parkway crossing. Plans in the study call for a 30-foot-high bridge with ramps extending about 300 feet in either direction, but Kenwood and CIDNA residents want future engineering studies to consider a tunnel.

In West Calhoun, already a crossroads for shoppers and commuters, traffic and station access are both concerns. West Lake Street may be one of the busiest stations on the entire line, and residents don’t want rail commuters parking all day on congested neighborhood streets, said Meg Forney of the West Calhoun Neighborhood Council.

The city is generally opposed to park-and-ride lots within Minneapolis, but Peter Wagenius, an aide to Mayor R.T. Rybak, said West Lake Street may be the one location where a park-and-ride makes sense.