Railroad nixes reroute to make way for Southwest light-rail line

The following article by Pat Doyle and Rochelle Olson was published in the February 21, 2014 issue of the StarTribune  (This article from StarTribune.com can also be viewed on the paper’s full website: http://www.startribune.com/permalink/246353131.html ):

Railroad nixes reroute to make way for Southwest light-rail line


With the Southwest Corridor light-rail project facing a make-or-break deadline, a freight train company has rejected the latest proposal to clear space for the transit line in Minneapolis’ Kenilworth recreation corridor.

Thursday’s refusal by Twin Cities & Western to reroute its freight trains in St. Louis Park came as metro county officials who bankroll transit projects sent a letter to Southwest Corridor planners threatening to withhold funding if the conflict over the route isn’t resolved by June 30.

At $1.5 billion, the Southwest Corridor light-rail line is the biggest transit project in the Twin Cities.

The counties told Southwest Corridor planners that cities along the proposed route from Eden Prairie to Minneapolis must soon agree on the project or risk losing money to the next light-rail project in line. TC&W President Mark Wegner said an engineer he hired concluded that the latest plan for rerouting his freight in St. Louis Park is “neither efficient, safe nor cost-effective” when compared to its current route in the Kenilworth corridor.

“The operating conditions … would be detrimental in every respect to current and future operating conditions for the TC&W,” the engineer wrote. The proposed route includes reverse curves and changing elevations that increase chances of trains buckling, the report said.

“It doesn’t make sense for us to accept that,” Wegner said. “Suppose we have a derailment? Good luck getting anyone to pay for that.”

No cost difference seen

The latest St. Louis Park reroute idea emerged during a moratorium on the project last fall. Gov. Mark Dayton supported the pause to address criticism of the Southwest Corridor plans after then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak cast the lone no vote on a plan to keep the freight line in Kenilworth and put tracks in tunnels nearby. That idea came under fire from the city and Kenilworth residents, who wanted the freight trains moved and questioned the tunnels’ potential effects on city lakes.

A previous St. Louis Park reroute acceptable to TC&W involved two-story berms that many St. Louis Park residents opposed. A panel of metro leaders also balked at the idea.

Transit planners for the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the Southwest Corridor project, have said a reroute should be acceptable to TC&W before it’s approved.

Railroads have clout when federal regulators decide whether to shut down lines. The U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which approves such requests, said last fall that governments typically face a burden in forcing a reroute over the objections of a railroad.

“It’s not easy; it’s a high bar,” Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said.

He said the county, which owns the Kenilworth track, is meeting with the agency next week. “We’re trying to really determine just how much say the railroad’s got,” he said.

On Thursday afternoon, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges told a group of metro leaders, “I don’t want to give veto power to the railroad.”

She also said she wants more information on how Met Council planners came up with cost comparisons for rerouting in St. Louis Park vs. the Minneapolis tunnels. But McLaughlin said that work would delay the project without providing meaningful details.

The cost of the alternatives will play a role in upcoming decisions. When the latest reroute plan was released three weeks ago, it suggested that rerouting the freight traffic in St. Louis Park would be significantly less expensive than keeping it in Kenilworth and building light-rail tunnels.

But figures released Thursday by the Met Council show that the latest reroute would cost roughly the same as keeping the freight trains in the Kenilworth corridor with tunnels — up to $250 million.

Funding threatened

The line has been in planning for a decade but has been stalled and threatened by disagreement between Minneapolis and St. Louis Park over the freight traffic.

Southwest is expected to be a critical piece of the Twin Cities transit network, connecting Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis and the Central Corridor through St. Paul. Riders could transfer to the Blue Line to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America.

On Thursday, a group of metro counties bankrolling one-third of the line’s cost released a sharply worded letter to Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh delivering the ultimatum. The board said that cities along the proposed route must act now or the Bottineau line planned for the northwest suburbs will get the $350 million pending for the Southwest Corridor.

“In the absence of community partners along the Southwest LRT line that are willing to work to resolve issues, the board will move its financial support to the next corridor in the queue,” said the letter, which was signed by McLaughlin, who also is chair of the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB).

The Met Council is required by state law to seek the consent of the cities along the route, but it is unclear whether the project could go forward without it.

Representatives from Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties serve on the board, along with the Metropolitan Council.

“While Southwest LRT will yield significant local benefits, it is also a very important regional project,” the letter said. “We believe that it is imperative that local parochial interests and positioning are not allowed to block progress on this regional asset.”

CTIB already has spent $20 million on the Southwest Corridor and earmarked $30 million more this year for engineering and design.

“We expect these funds will be expended prudently and in a manner that advances the project in the engineering and design process,” the one-page letter said.

The board voted unanimously Wednesday morning to send the letter.

“The purpose of this action is to convey our sense of strong urgency that this project move ahead and show progress,” the letter said.

Dayton issued a statement Thursday saying he supports the June 30 deadline for action by the cities.