Trust issues: Met Council tries to assuage Southwest LRT concerns

Southwest Light Rail Transit construction
Work is ramping up in the Kenilworth Corridor for the Southwest Light Rail Transit construction project, seen here from the Burnham Road bridge in early November. Photo by Andrew Hazzard

As construction of the Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) extension begins to enter its most intensive phase, attempts by project officials to ease concerns of neighboring residents in Minneapolis are being met with mixed results.

Fears that construction of a light rail tunnel in the Kenilworth Corridor would cause structural damage to the Calhoun-Isles Condominium building have subsided, but several residents still worry about safety impacts of heavy construction and lengthy road closures in the area.

“We’re not whistling Dixie here and we really would like some answers,” said Mary Pattock, head of the Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association, at a rail safety meeting on Oct. 30.

The meeting, required by a state law passed by Southwest legislators Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Frank Hornstein, was both a forum for officials to inform locals about the project’s safety procedures and for residents to ask questions about upcoming construction.

Tunnel work

A long-held fear was that digging a half-mile tunnel in the Kenilworth Corridor would threaten the structural integrity of the Calhoun-Isles Condominium building, a grain elevator converted into residential space in the 1980s. SWLRT project officials have been meeting weekly with the Calhoun-Isles Condo Association in the lead up to construction.

Several months ago, CICA resident Nancy Nikora said she was worried the construction process could damage the rigid concrete structure of her building. “We don’t want vibrations from construction be so traumatic that people can’t stand to live in their condos,” she told the Southwest Journal in late March.

Now, Nikora said the group’s current consultant believes there is no major threat to the building during construction, though she still has concerns that train vibrations could harm the structure once the light rail line is operational. “We are somewhat reassured by what we have heard on a weekly basis,” she said on Oct. 30.

To construct the tunnel, the Metropolitan Council is using two hydraulic press-in pilers, which are designed to reduce noise and vibration in the cut-and-cover tunneling. The press-in piler was used to install a wall on the Kenilworth trail near West 21st Street in October. Nikora said she went to see the machine in action and said it was “surprisingly quiet.”

While CICA residents have fewer fears, the condo organization is still in mediation with the Met Council on a construction agreement for the project. The agreement, also required by state law, will lay out the best way to avoid building damage during construction. Project manager Jim Alexander said they are working to get the agreement in writing but said the Met Council won’t be giving CICA the binding agreement the organization is seeking for guaranteed damage money, calling it “not good public policy.”

To measure vibration and noise during the tunneling process, the Met Council has installed several monitors on and inside adjacent buildings to track potential cracking or other issues. The Met Council did a vibration study last year to test the area’s limits and said they are testing all equipment to ensure it doesn’t exceed vibration thresholds before work.

Several people asked what would happen if the tunnel failed, a scenario project officials say is extremely unlikely and one for which they do not have a plan in place.

I don’t even know if that’s remotely possible,” Alexander said.

Tunnel construction is scheduled to begin near Park Siding Park in early November.

press-in piler machine
The press-in piler machine, seen here near West 21st Street, will be used to construct the tunnel in the Kenilworth Corridor. The machines are designed to reduce vibrations. Photo by Andrew Hazzard

Flagging issues

On two occasions in June, flaggers contracted to control traffic through the construction zone improperly allowed freight trains to enter the Kenilworth Corridor when people were working in the area.

No one was harmed in those incidents, which Alexander said resulted from working with a different contractor than Twin Cites & Western Railroad (TC&W) in the early stages of the project. Now, he said, the railroad and Met Council are partners and veteran flaggers are working in the area. No further problems have been reported, and Alexander and TC&W representatives tried to assure residents that the project would live up to safety standards.

“What we just heard is the Met Council did not do it right the first time,” Pattock said.

Kenilworth freight line traffic includes trains hauling ethanol, which has long been a safety concern in the area. Many, including Hornstein, worry that construction work in the area increases the likelihood that a derailment causing an explosion could occur.

“That’s why the incident with the flaggers was so concerning,” Hornstein said.

The meeting included a general presentation about emergency planning and evacuation basics from Barret Lane, director of Minneapolis’ emergency management office. But Hornstein and some area residents want a much more detailed evacuation plan in place for those living along the Kenilworth Corridor.

“My concern with the Met Council is there was an opportunity to address these issues in the environmental impact statement and they punted,” he said.

Hornstein, who chairs the Legislature’s transportation committee, would like to see the Met Council, Minneapolis, Hennepin County and the railroad companies join with local residents to come up with a detailed safety plan for the area.

Overlapping construction 

As part of the tunnel construction, Cedar Lake Parkway will close near the Kenilworth Corridor for six months this spring. That closure has some residents worried emergency vehicles will be delayed responding to issues in the area.

Assistant Fire Chief Raymond Cruz said the city’s fire department has road crews that go out daily to map construction and detours to find the most efficient way for responders to navigate the city. “They are very good at doing that,” he said.

Many residents said Hennepin County’s recent reconstruction of the West Lake Street and Excelsior Boulevard intersection and other nearby private development projects have contributed to an unsustainable amount of work in the area, something Met Council officials said they communicate about but can’t control.

City Council Member Lisa Goodman (Ward 7) accused Alexander of trying to blame others for the overlap of construction activity in the area.

“Who is the entity who can say, ‘Hey, that’s too much?’” Goodman asked.

Fire Department and Met Council officials contend working through frustrating delays is part of the construction process.

“Fortunately, or unfortunately, there is a lot of development happening in this area,” Alexander said.