Continued safety questions and tunnel challenges for SWLRT

Tunnel work continues in the Kenilworth Corridor
Tunnel work continues in the Kenilworth Corridor, but some boulders have caused a delay near the Calhoun-Isles Condos building. Photo by Andrew Hazzard

Nearing the completion of its second full construction season, work on the Southwest Light Rail Transit project continues in Southwest Minneapolis with some safety lapses and continued concerns from nearby residents.

At a Sept. 30 safety meeting — required by a state law proposed by Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-61) and Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-61A) — project leaders gave an update on construction and were pressed to explain steps being taken to ensure the well-being of locals and workers.

The Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association and Kenwood Neighborhood Organization used the meeting to ask about safety metrics and accountability for the project.

“Unless there are incentives or disincentives for safety, I don’t know how it can rise to the top of priorities,” CIDNA board chair Mary Pattock said.

By some metrics, the SWLRT project is behind on safety. There have been 17 recorded injuries in the 747,939 hours worked on the project. That’s a “total case incident rate” of 4.5, a measurement related to the number of injuries per 100,000 workers, according to the Metropolitan Council — a higher rate than the 3.6 average for heavy construction projects. The Met Council is regularly monitoring safety protocols for contractors and has been more diligent because of that higher figure, project leader Jim Alexander said.

Hornstein asked about the development of a neighborhood evacuation plan for residents near the Kenilworth Corridor in the event of an oil tank explosion, a topic that had been discussed at the 2019 meeting. Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said firefighters are regularly monitoring the project and that the department’s hazmat equipment and training has improved in recent years, but that making an evacuation plan for the whole neighborhood is difficult because there’s no way to predict where such an explosion would occur and practicing for the wrong location wouldn’t help.

“It’s very challenging because there are so many unknowns,” Fruetel said.

Two safety issues that project leadership views as isolated incidents are seen as signs of more issues to come by some residents. Shortly after construction began in June 2019, flaggers contracted to control traffic in the construction zone improperly allowed freight trains to enter the Kenilworth Corridor. No one was harmed in those incidents and Twin Cities & Western Railroad has since taken over flagging operations. The second, more alarming incident came on July 15, when a crane failure in the Kenilworth Corridor led to the temporary evacuation of about 10 Cedar Lake Shores townhomes. No one was injured and the only damage was to project equipment. An investigation found the crane operator left the cab in violation of policy, and the operator was fired, Alexander said.

Tunnel challenges

Work on a half-mile tunnel running from West Lake Street through Cedar Lake Parkway has hit a rocky patch.

Construction crews have been installing metal sheets to create the tunnel for the past year using a press-in piler designed to minimize noise and vibrations in the process. But recently crews have encountered underground boulders near the Calhoun-Isles Condominium building that might require a new method.

“Because of this we are kind of stepping back for a minute,” Alexander said.

The press-in piler loosens soil when inserting sheets. When it encounters rock underground, it causes more earth movement, Alexander said, which could lead to destabilization. Contractors are considering alternative methods, like a secant wall, which would not use sheeting, but have not come to a final decision yet.

Tunnel construction will continue through 2022, though some excavation work is underway near Park Siding Park.