Minneapolis cool to the idea of tunnels for Southwest LRT

Met Council provided the City Council with eight options for what to do with freight trains near the Kenilworth Trail

The Met Council project team for Southwest Light Rail Transit today presented a city panel with eight options on what to do with freight trains that run in between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. 

One of those options includes keeping freight rail by digging a deep tunnel to make room for light rail trains, but city policymakers were quick to all but dismiss that idea.

Met Council staff also laid out a timeline for when it would like the City Council to authorize municipal consent for using Minneapolis land for the project.

Engineers plan to present a recommendation on the 15-mile route between downtown and Eden Prairie to the Met Council in August. After that, it will give the plans to the Minneapolis City Council and other cities with hopes of gaining municipal consent by the end of the year.  

Six out of the eight options presented today include what is known as “co-location.” Co-location means that both freight trains and light rail trains would run along the Kenilworth Trail from roughly Highway 100 to where the Kenilworth Trail meets the Cedar Lake Trail.

The City Council has been adamantly opposed to co-location, but some in the community had hoped that a tunnel could be a good alternative to keeping freight rail, light rail and bike paths on the same corridor. 

Two of the options presented call for tunnels along a stretch from Lake Street to 21st Street — an idea that the City Council is skeptical of because of high costs and soft soil.

“I don’t want anybody who is not in these deep conversations to think it’s really practical to do a deep tunnel there,” said Sandy Colvin Roy, chair of the Transportation and Public Works Committee. “If we could, in this area, afford deep tunnels, there would be one in downtown Minneapolis.”

Laura Baenen, communications manager for the project, said the Met Council plans to have cost estimates for the entire project, including the tunnel, available this summer.

There’s widespread opposition in City Hall of any plan that keeps freight trains running along the Kenilworth Trail. Currently, about 20 trains run along that line each week, and the city wants the track removed and the trains re-routed north through St. Louis Park.

“The city has been consistent and clear all along that co-location is not an option,” said Council Member Robert Lilligren (Ward 6).

Peter Wagenius, policy director to Mayor R.T. Rybak, echoed those sentiments and warned that residents shouldn’t get their hopes up about a tunnel being a realistic alternative.

“People really should not get their hearts set on the deep tunnel because we have no idea how much cost it would carry with it,” he said. “We have no idea how extensive the impact to neighboring communities might be. A lot more work would need to be done before we’d be in a position to take that seriously.”

In the tunnel scenario, the Met Council would have to find a temporary re-routing of freight trains during construction.

Two other options call for elevating either the bike and pedestrian trails or elevating light rail. Those are also expensive options, and like the tunnel options, do no prevent home removals.

Whether trails or tracks get buried or elevated makes no significant difference in the number of properties the project would have to acquire in Minneapolis. In all scenarios, the project would have to acquire 54 or 55 homes and seven commercial properties, according to numbers provided by the Met Council.

 “These are real people who live in the city, pay property taxes and pay income taxes and contribute to the community, who will be homeless because of the taking,” said City Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents the area. 

If freight rail is relocated, none of the homes on that stretch on the Kenilworth Corridor would need to be removed, confirmed Jim Alexander, the project’s design director, after prodding by Council members.

The Met Council was directed by the Federal Transit Administration to consider both co-location and re-location options, Baenen said. The FTA is going to fund half of the project.

Neighbors in St. Louis Park have opposed the alternative to co-location, which is re-located freight rail. The two re-location plans presented today would push freight trains north and through St. Louis Park, resulting in the loss of all or parts of 10 to 11 homes and 19 to 32 businesses, depending on the option. One plan would cut the St. Louis Park High School football field in half.

The tentative schedule for $1.25 billion Southwest LRT line would have trains running in 2018.