Latest Plans for Light Rail Draw Some Skepticism

The following article by Pat Doyle was published in the February 11, 2014 issue of the Star Tribune:


Some critics of the Southwest Corridor route suggest planners go back to the drawing board

Transit planners called the community gathering Monday in Minneapolis a chance for people to react to competing plans for putting the Southwest light rail in the Kenilworth recreational corridor. But many who attended favored a different agenda: putting the light rail someplace else.

“Can’t we just cut the light rail off and not have it go through Kenilworth?” asked Nora Whiteman, who lives near Cedar Lake.

That sentiment drew applause from many of the 75 people who attended a meeting designed to review the project’s impact on nearby lakes and the possibility of rerouting freight trains from the corridor to St. Louis Park.

A reroute for the light rail itself wasn’t on the agenda of the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the roughly $1.5 billion project.

“I don’t favor looking for another route,” Met Council chair Susan Haigh told the group, gathered in the auditorium of Dunwoody College of Technology. “There are hard decisions that need to be made.”

The nearly 16-mile Southwest line would run from Eden Prairie to Minneapolis and is scheduled to open in 2018. But planners will probably need to decide by this summer what to do with the area’s freight traffic, an issue that has divided Minneapolis and St. Louis Park residents.

Moving it to St. Louis Park would allow running the light-rail trains at ground level in the Kenilworth corridor next to recreational paths. If freight trains stay in the corridor it would require digging tunnels for the light rail on either side of a water channel.

While some Minneapolis officials see moving the freight as an acceptable trade-off for taking on light rail, some homeowners along the corridor prefer keeping the freight without the light rail. Others have said they’d accept the light rail only if it were hidden entirely in a tunnel that would run under a water channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake.

Metro leaders last year recommended the light rail surface from the two tunnels to cross a bridge over the channel. Some homeowners continue to support tunneling under the channel as less disruptive.

“That’s the most sensitive portion,” David Lilly, who lives nearby, told transit planners Monday.

Another resident was applauded when he proposed hiding the light rail in tunnels even if the freight trains move. Building the light rail at ground level is “hardly an improvement,” said Russell Palma.

The Kenilworth corridor route was selected after years of studies showed that alternative routes were more costly and had other drawbacks. Met Council member Adam Duininck said going back to the drawing board now would set back the project for federal funding, which is expected to cover half its cost.

“So what?” yelled one woman. “Go do it.”

Minneapolis legislators and city officials were encouraged last week that a new plan for rerouting the freight to St. Louis Park might prove acceptable to that city. The Met Council hired a consultant who designed the reroute to avoid the two-story berms that had drawn opposition.

But St. Louis Park officials and some residents continue to balk at accepting the additional freight traffic.

Some of those attending Monday’s meeting were skeptical of a recent study released by the Met Council that concluded that the proposed light-rail tunnels straddling the channel would have no significant impact on water levels.

“I think nature bets last,” said Susu Jeffrey of Minneapolis.