Contentious light-rail plans called viable in new study

The following article by Tom Meersman was published in the January 31, 2014 issue of the Star Tribune:

Contentious light-rail plans called viable in new study

Report concludes freight trains could be rerouted west.

A new study’s conclusion that freight trains could be rerouted from the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail line in Minneapolis to St. Louis Park is likely to reignite debate over the state’s largest light-rail project.

That conclusion — earlier versions of which have been roundly opposed by St. Louis Park — was included in one of two draft reports released Thursday by the Metropolitan Council, which is overseeing the project. The proposed $1.5 billion line would run between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.

Part of the proposed light-rail route would run near popular Minneapolis lakes in the Kenilworth recreational corridor, in an area that now carries freight-train traffic. The study said those freight trains could be rerouted west to St. Louis Park, freeing space for light rail to cruise at ground level without the need for tunnels near Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

Although previous proposals have also advanced the idea of rerouting freight traffic to St. Louis Park, the current study, by TranSystems of Kansas City, suggests changes in that overall plan that it says would allay many citizen concerns. For instance, it does not support the idea of running freight trains along earthen berms.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges called the report “a new option on the table” that should be studied closely.

But Jake Spano, a St. Louis Park City Council member, remains unhappy that adding freight train traffic to his community is being considered yet again.

“People who have worked on this [light-rail] project for years have looked at these train routes over and over and over again,” Spano said. “It feels a little bit like a ‘Hail Mary’ pass, where in a couple weeks someone has come up with an idea which really isn’t that different from ones we’ve already set aside.”

The western suburb’s mayor, Jeff Jacobs said he is “extremely discouraged, disappointed and quite frankly shocked that at the 11th hour a so-called viable freight rail reroute through St. Louis Park has now been identified by the consultant.”

In a prepared statement, Jacobs said that the study does not address his city’s concerns that more freight trains will increase noise, vibration, odors and traffic congestion, diminish property values and interfere with school and park use and safety.

Second study on tunnels.

A second study concluded that an alternative to rerouting freight train traffic to St. Louis Park — keeping freight traffic where it is and engineering the light rail to run through a pair of shallow tunnels in the corridor — would have minimal effects on water resources.

That $50,000 analysis from Burns & McDonnell, also of Kansas City, reviewed previous studies that had reached similar conclusions, analyzed how tunnels would affect groundwater flow and lake levels, and identified areas where more information should be gathered if the project moves into the engineering and environmental assessment phase.

The studies were commissioned in part because Gov. Mark Dayton said in October that he wanted more questions answered about the light-rail line, over which debate had been raging for months. He called for a 90-day moratorium on major decisions about the line, saying that the project was on a “collision course” with opponents.

A decision by March?

Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh called the reports a “good step forward,” and said they need to be analyzed by planners and presented to the public to receive feedback during the next few weeks.

“Our first priority was to release these reports to the public and policymakers as quickly as possible,” she said. “While these reports provide additional technical information about both freight and water issues, their conclusions must undergo technical, community, fiscal and policy scrutiny.”

Haigh said she hopes the Met Council will be ready to decide on how to proceed by the end of March, and will have support from the project’s funding partners and affected cities.

Under state law, the Met Council must seek the consent of Minneapolis, St. Louis Park and other communities along the Southwest line to move forward with the light-rail plan.

The proposed line would include 15.8 miles of double track and 17 stations that would stretch between downtown Minneapolis and the southwestern suburbs of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie, and would pass near Edina.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a veteran of light-rail projects, said the latest studies are important because there wasn’t enough confidence last fall that all the construction options had been examined thoroughly enough.

“I’m happy,” he said. “This is another step along the way to getting a decision on Southwest that’s going to get it built.”