Land acquisitions for Southwest light rail get green light

Surface Transportation Board gives SWLRT backers a win

A freight train makes its way down the Kenilworth Corridor in Minneapolis. File photo

A federal board on Aug. 22 gave the Metropolitan Council the go-ahead to take ownership of two segments of railroad corridor that are critical to its completion of the $2 billion Southwest Light Rail Transit project.

The Surface Transportation Board will allow Met Council to take ownership of the Bass Lake Spur and Kenilworth Corridor, two key pieces of the planned 14.5-mile light rail connection between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. The board’s decision also cleared the way for the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority to take on the role of common carrier, meaning it will be responsible for maintaining the freight rail service that already operates in both railroad corridors.

A Met Council spokesperson confirmed the favorable decision but said no one at the agency was immediately available for comment.

Hennepin County Board Member Peter McLaughlin, who chairs the rail authority, described the decision as a “huge step,” but said he could not comment on the specifics of the board’s ruling until it had been reviewed by the county’s legal staff.

“What I know is we needed a decision, and then we got one,” he said. “Now we can sort through things and move forward.”

The board’s decision allows Met Council and the railroad authority to complete a deal announced this spring. Met Council plans to purchase the 6.8-mile Bass Lake Spur from Canadian Pacific Railway for up to $27.45 million while at the same time taking over ownership of the Kenilworth Corridor, worth an estimated $66 million, from the rail authority.

The plan came together after a breakdown in negotiations between Met Council and Twin Cities and Western Railroad, a freight hauler that operates on both segments of track. Met Council had originally proposed for the Glencoe-based shortline railroad to become the common carrier along both the Bass Lake Spur and the Kenilworth Corridor, but the two sides could not come to terms, disagreeing on, among other things, how TC&W would be compensated for any losses due to light rail construction and operation.

TC&W urged the Surface Transportation Board to reject Met Council’s plan, and in April it filed a lawsuit against the agency in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. The two sides met in mediation this summer, and in July TC&W and its shippers wrote to the board to withdraw their objections. TC&W also dropped its lawsuit.

The Surface Transportation Board ruling is a sign of progress for the long-planned extension of the Metro Green Line, but many hurdles remain for the project. Those include an environmental lawsuit filed by a Minneapolis citizens group and uncertainty over whether and when the Federal Transit Administration will award the SWLRT project a grant expected to cover just less than half the total cost of the project. As the project budget has expanded, members of the Hennepin County Board have signaled rising concern over the county’s financial commitment to the project.

Met Council is seeking a letter of no prejudice from the FTA that would let it begin construction activities even before the grant is awarded.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the project’s current budget, which earlier this year surpassed $2 billion.