Responses poke holes in SWLRT environmental report

“Serious concerns” over rail safety in Kenilworth Corridor persist, legislators say

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

Two state legislators from Minneapolis say they have “serious concerns” with the way a key environmental report on the Southwest Light Rail Transit project addresses — or fails to address — the risks of running light rail alongside freight trains.

In their June 13 letter to the Metropolitan Council, Rep. Frank Hornstein (61A) and Sen. Scott Dibble (61) wrote the final environmental impact statement for the $1.79-billion transit project “reads like an advocacy document for the freight rail industry.” The two were exploring options to have the state’s Environmental Quality Board review the report, an extra step not included in Met Council’s plans, Hornstein said.

The legislators’ letter was one of 50 responses submitted during a 30-day public comment period on the report. Others came from businesses, property owners, neighborhood groups and individuals living near the future SWLRT route.

Project spokesperson Laura Baenen said the Met Council would respond to the comments in the Federal Transit Agency’s Record of Decision on the project. Once the decision is published and the Met Council completes its own Determination of Adequacy document, the agency can apply for the federal funds that are expected to cover half of project costs and begin advertising for construction contracts.

Hornstein and Dibble’s comments focus on the Kenilworth Corridor, as do the responses of several other Minneapolis groups.

Kenilworth Corridor is possibly the most controversial segment of SWLRT, which will extend the Metro Transit Green Line 14-and-a-half miles from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. In the narrow corridor lined by parkland and homes, light rail trains will run alongside and underneath freight trains that sometimes transport ethanol.

Seeking accountability

Rep. Frank Hornstein
Rep. Frank Hornstein

Hornstein said the 17,000-page report, released May 13 by the Federal Transit Administration, “papers-over” safety concerns, instead emphasizing the importance of the freight rail industry to the state’s economy. The document does not adequately address the “likely” outcome that the freight trains in the Kenilworth Corridor will increase in length and frequency and is vague in its discussion of emergency response plans, he and Dibble contend.

“This is a complete lack of interest in holding TC&W and some of the other railroads accountable for basic safety and transparency questions, which are really vital,” Hornstein said, referring to Twin Cities & Western, the shortline railroad that operates in the Kenilworth Corridor.

The railroad’s president, Mark Wegner, said it was “not in (TC&W’s) hands” whether ethanol shipments through the Kenilworth Corridor increase in frequency or not.

“It’s in the hands of the farmer-producers out in rural Minnesota,” Wegner said. “If they decide to put up another ethanol plant, well, they have every right to do that.

“Our obligation is if they do that we have to haul it. We have no choice.”

Wegner said the company would not make its emergency response plan public because “if it falls into the wrong hands could cause harm.” Hornstein, who has long advocated for greater disclosure of such plans, said recent court decisions in Maryland and California have challenged claims by railroads that risk of publicity is greater than the public’s right to know.

Wegner said railroad officials met with Hennepin County Emergency Management this spring and made plans to coordinate the response to a derailment, spill or other railroad emergency through that department. TC&W was trying to schedule a meeting that would include emergency response officials from both the county and all of the cities along the co-located tracks “hopefully by the end of July or August,” he added.

Others respond

There’s been a freight rail presence in the Kenilworth Corridor since the 1870s, but many current residents of Kenwood and other border neighborhoods didn’t expect to still be living side-by-side with freight trains.

TC&W trains have been using the Hennepin County-owned corridor only since the 1990s. The tracks were rehabbed for “temporary” use by the company after its route down the 29th Street Midtown Corridor, now home to the Midtown Greenway, was severed by a redesign of Highway 55, according to a county report.

Plans for light rail through the Kenilworth Corridor were discussed as far back as the mid-1980s. But when the SWLRT alignment was finalized over 20 years later, the efforts of Minneapolis city officials and residents to finally reroute freight trains through St. Louis Park failed.

A letter from the Kenwood Isles Area Association described the decision to co-locate freight and light rail a “significant breach of public trust and the low point of a deeply flawed planning process.” The neighborhood group’s response to the final environmental impact statement reiterates its longstanding concerns about safety, noise, vibrations, environmental impacts and damage to the historical integrity of Minneapolis’ Grand Rounds.

Minneapolis and Hennepin County struck a compromise that will run light rail trains in a tunnel through a portion of the Kenilworth Corridor, preserving not just freight rail tracks but a popular bicycle and pedestrian path. That tunnel will be dug within a few feet of the Calhoun-Isles Condominium high-rise and an adjacent parking ramp used by residents.

The Calhoun Isles Condominium Association hired an engineering firm to review a SWLRT environmental report.
The Calhoun Isles Condominium Association hired an engineering firm to review a SWLRT environmental report.

The condominium association hired Itasca Consulting Group, a Minneapolis-based engineering consultant, to review the final environmental impact statement and conduct its own assessment. Itasca describes the report as “faulty,” adding it “fails to account for necessary mitigation.”

Among other findings, the Itasca report maintains vibration estimates from passing trains are “far too low” because they are based on faulty measurements and “unlikely ‘best case’ conditions.” The report states vibrations during and after construction could damage condominium structures; that noise impacts are underestimated; and that Met Council didn’t perform an adequate pre-construction investigation of the site.

“We believe that the Metropolitan Council should reimburse us for the cost of obtaining Itasca’s expert advice on the inadequacy of the final EIS,” a letter from the association’s attorney, Christopher Hayhoe, reads.

The amount of reimbursement the condo association is seeking is $10,000.