Minneapolis leaders request review of Southwest light rail wall

The 10-foot-high wall was added to the project in August

This photo provided by the Met Council shows a portion of the Wayzata Subdivision, where BNSF has requested a wall to separate freight-rail traffic from light-rail trains. Submitted photo

Minneapolis officials are requesting an environmental impact study on a crash wall that was added to Southwest Light Rail Transit plans in August after closed-door negotiations with two railroad companies.

The wall was added to the $1.9-billion SWLRT project less than a week before the Met Council voted in August to approve a series of agreements with two freight rail operators that will share their rail corridors with the light-rail trains. One agreement called for a 10-foot-high, 1.4-mile long wall separating freight and light-rail traffic in the Wayzata Subdivision, which is owned by BNSF and extends from roughly Interstate 394 to the North Loop.

In a Sept. 21 letter to Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff, Mayor Betsy Hodges described the wall as a “significant and substantial change” to the project’s design as it stood in 2014, when the city and Met Council entered into various Memorandums of Understanding regarding the project. Hodges called on the Met Council to “promptly” conduct an environmental review on the wall.

The letter was co-signed by state Sen. Scott Dibble, Rep. Frank Hornstein and City Council members Cam Gordon, Lisa Goodman, Kevin Reich and Lisa Bender.

“As elected officials representing residents of Minneapolis, we are surprised at the lack of information about the proposed barrier wall that has been provided to us,” the letter stated. “We are also surprised about the lack of a public process and open community engagement about a subject that is important to our residents.”

Met Council officials have previously said they were not able to discuss negotiations with the railroads while they were ongoing. While SWLRT plans included a wall in some form, the agreement with BNSF extended its length significantly.

In a written response issued this morning, Tchourumoff said the Met Council was committed to public engagement on the project.

“Over the next few months, the Southwest Project Office will be working with the City of Minneapolis on the aesthetic design of the wall and will engage the community on the design. The community outreach plan includes hosting open houses, checking in with neighborhoods like Bryn Mawr, and consulting the project’s Minneapolis landscape advisory group, among other activities,” she wrote.

Met Council spokesperson Kate Brickman said all of the officials who signed the mayor’s letter were invited to tour the future light-rail corridor beginning next week.

The wall is also on the agenda of the Corridor Management Committee’s Sept. 29 meeting. The group is made up of local elected officials from communities along the future SWLRT route. Brickman said she expected more information on the wall to be available at that time.

“At this point, the issue is making the commitment to be accountable, however long it takes,” Hornstein, who plans to tour the corridor on Wednesday, said. “This is not a minor matter. It’s a $60-million public expense that, again, just came out of nowhere, literally.

Other concerns

Beyond its discussion of the wall, the mayor’s letter reiterated local officials’ concern with another provision of the shared-corridor agreement with BNSF, one that would potentially require Met Council to challenge in court any future law restricting freight traffic in the shared corridor. That could put the Met Council in the position of fighting in court on behalf of BNSF against either the city or Hennepin County.

“Having not been able to read the actual agreement, but only Met Council staff’s descriptions of it, we cannot confirm the situation,” the letter stated.

The letter described a supplemental environmental impact statement as “the best remaining tool to reassure the public that the right questions will ultimately be answered.”

Met Council also agreed to take out a $295-million railroad liability policy to cover any incident involving both freight and light-rail trains in the BNSF-owned corridor. Met Council has a similar agreement regarding the Northstar Commuter Rail Line, which also operates on BNSF right-of-way.

SWLRT is a 14.5-mile extension of the METRO Green Line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie and the most expensive public works project in state history. The Met Council on Wednesday rejected all four bids for civil construction work on the project, saying they went beyond the project budget and weren’t completely responsive to the plans.

That decision pushed the repeatedly delayed opening date for the line into 2022. The Met Council now plans to trim costs from the project before reopening the civil construction contract for bids in October. A contract would then be awarded in early 2018.

Sometime around spring of 2018, the Met Council plans to submit its full-funding grant agreement to the Federal Transit Administration. That grant would cover half of all project costs, with Hennepin County contributing almost the entire local share for SWLRT.

Hornstein said the Met Council’s decision to reject all four bids “opened a window” for additional environmental review.

“The project is already delayed because of the issues with the bids, so this is an opportune time to do this additional environmental study,” he said. “If the Met Council decides to do it, they could get going tomorrow.”

The project has already required one supplemental environmental impact statement when plans were adjusted to include co-location of freight and light-rail trains in the Kenilworth Corridor. Among other things, the study looked at the potential impact of two cut-and-cover light rail tunnels on the Chain of Lakes.

The FTA published what was then considered the final environmental impact statement in May 2016.