Assessing the impact of light rail

Local entities submitted their responses to a Southwest light rail study in December

The Southwest Corridor light rail line will be the region's third when it opens in 2018, after Hiawatha (shown here near Target Field) and the Central Corridor line schedule to open next year. Credit: By Dylan Thomas

Not nearly as voluminous as the 1,000-plus-page document that inspired them, responses from the city, Park Board and neighborhood groups to a study of the Southwest Light Rail Transit line nonetheless added up to an impressive stack of paper by late December.

In those scores of pages there seemed to be broad agreement on several of the major issues outlined in the draft environmental impact statement, or DEIS, released in October: Freight rail cannot remain in the Kenilworth Corridor when light rail arrives in 2018; some alternative must be found to a massive bridge over Cedar Lake Parkway; access to trails and parks must be maintained during and after construction; and the impacts of noise, vibrations and rail users on homes and parklands near the railway could be considerable, and deserve much more study.

Those potential impacts will get a closer look during the preliminary engineering phase of the $1.25-billion project. Two firms with experience in light rail, Kimley-Horn and AECOM, were each awarded $16.8-million contracts by the Metropolitan Council in mid-December to carry out that work.

And before construction on the 15.8-mile light rail line between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie begins in 2015, a final environmental impact statement will identify what, specifically, can be done to mitigate the concerns of stakeholders.

One perspective

If the Minneapolis stakeholders generally agree on the big issues, the separate responses to the DEIS each submitted emphasize different priorities. For instance, the letter project managers at Hennepin County received from the Bryn Mawr Neighborhood Association focuses less on what’s in the DEIS than what’s not in it.

Board Member Barry Schade said the neighborhood’s two stations at Van White Boulevard and Penn Avenue both have a high potential for spurring new development in the neighborhood and would also carry Bryn Mawr and North Side residents to jobs downtown and in the suburbs — if they’re built that is. And in the case of Penn Station, Schade and others are concerned that’s a big “if.”

The proposed Penn Station would be situated on a bluff overlooking the Kenilworth Corridor and would connect to the train line via a 420-foot bridge to the valley below, and the worry is high cost and low ridership estimates could scrub plans for the station. That no-build scenario isn’t addressed in the DEIS, but Schade said it would mean his neighborhood gets “all of the impacts with none of the benefits.”

“We don’t want another [Interstate] 394 episode, where it serves the suburbs and not us,” Schade said, referring to the highway that split the neighborhood into northern and southern halves in the 1980s.

Noise and traffic

The most thorough, or at least lengthiest, response to the DEIS was submitted jointly by the Kenwood, Cedar-Isles-Dean and West Calhoun neighborhoods with input from the citizen-led Cedar Lake Park Association and two condominium associations with properties near the future lines. With 250 or more trains expected to run through their neighborhoods each weekday, the group has serious concerns about vibrations and noise, especially “wheel squeal” and the bells and whistles required for at-grade crossings.

They also propose a tunnel for trains below Cedar Lake Parkway — an idea also supported by the Park Board — instead of an at-grade crossing that would delay traffic or the 30-foot-high bridge described in the DEIS.

“Putting up something like that would be offensive,” said Ed Ferlauto, a Cedar-Isles-Dean resident who led the 18-member volunteer group.

Ferlauto said the DEIS doesn’t go nearly far enough in examining the potential impacts on traffic and parking near future light rail stations, like the West 21st Street Station in the relatively quiet Kenwood neighborhood.

West Lake Street Station — planned for the already congested area near the West Lake Street and Excelsior Boulevard split, where there is a busy shopping area and fire station — is seen as a potential draw to commuters from the western suburbs. The concern is they’ll add to traffic problems in the area and take up neighborhood parking spots, since the city opposes any park-and-rides in Minneapolis, Ferlauto said.

Who will pay?

Three members of that joint neighborhood committee, along with Schade of Bryn Mawr, also served on the 18-member citizen advisory committee that drafted the DEIS response adopted Dec. 5 by the Park Board. Many of the concerns over noise, vibrations and visual impacts are similar to those voiced by neighborhood residents, although the focus shifts to the considerable amount of parkland adjacent to the route, including at least two parks, sections of the Grand Rounds and the Kenilworth Channel canal connecting Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

Both the city and Park Board maintain city taxpayers should not bear the full cost of reconstructing or resurfacing the Kenilworth and Cedar Lake bike and pedestrian trails. Both run parallel to the future line and are likely to be disturbed during construction.

The city’s official position is that any new sidewalks required for access to rail stations also should be paid for through the project, whose costs are divided between the federal government, state, counties along the route and the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority.

The city also stakes out strong opposition to the DEIS recommendation for a new light rail operations and maintenance facility in North Loop.

City Council Member Robert Lilligren (Ward 6) said a similar facility for the Hiawatha line is sitting on “a really a prime redevelopment site” off of Franklin Avenue. Lilligren suggested a site near the southwestern terminus of the new light rail line would be a more appropriate site, allowing the city to leverage the new amenity for redevelopment.

Said Lilligren: “Minneapolis is a fully built environment, and there are areas on the line that are completely undeveloped.”