M P R B: Re-route Freight Trains for Southwest L R T

The following article by Bill McAuliffe was published in the August 23, 2013 issue of the Star Tribune:

Minneapolis Park Board: Reroute freight trains for Southwest LRT

The Kenilworth Trail alongside a freight train track that is adjacent to a proposed site for the Southwest Corridor light rail line.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board says it wants freight train traffic rerouted to St. Louis Park to make way for a light-rail line from Minneapolis to the southwest suburbs.

The board’s position, in a detailed resolution passed unanimously Wednesday, could complicate the already contentious process of designing the nearly 16-mile light rail line though five cities from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, with a price tag that could approach $1.8 billion.

St. Louis Park residents have opposed a reroute of freight from the Kenilworth Corridor, which would keep only light rail and recreational trails in the area between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. The Park Board indicated in its resolution that it would accept all three modes of transportation in the corridor only if the light-rail tracks were dropped into a deep tunnel to run under the Kenilworth Channel connecting Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. That tunnel could cost more than $300 million, and regional leaders have objected to those costs.

Parks commissioners also indicated they firmly oppose a cheaper “shallow” tunnel option for light rail as too environmentally disruptive. Trains would emerge from the tunnel in a trench to cross over the Kenilworth Channel, a feature that parks commissioner Anita Tabb, who represents the area of Minneapolis on the board, described as “strip mining.” The channel is a popular canoe and kayak route in the summer and ski and skate course in the winter.

The Park Board has the power to challenge the proposed route and designs under federal transportation policies, said Park Board attorney Brian Rice. Those policies were adopted a generation ago, in part due to conflicts between highway and park planners in Minneapolis over proposed enhancements to Hiawatha Avenue (Hwy. 55) through south Minneapolis, including Minnehaha Park. Under federal provisions, transportation projects cannot go through park land or historic sites if a feasible alternative can be found, Rice said.

The Park Board’s position is that the Kenilworth Corridor is part of the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway system, which has been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. Eligibility provides special protections under transportation law, Rice said.

Parks commissioners said they didn’t think anyone would be surprised by their resolution. Board chairman John Erwin said it was in keeping with the board’s mission to “preserve and protect the parks.”