The following article by Dylan Thomas was published in the February 13, 2014 issue of the Southwest Journal:
Study proposes third option for Southwest light rail
TranSystems has identified another way to reroute Kenilworth Corridor freight traffic
Suddenly, there’s another option on the table for Southwest light rail.
An independent consultant has proposed a new plan to reroute a Minneapolis freight line through St. Louis Park, and Minneapolis leaders are calling it a viable alternative to prepare the city’s Kenilworth Corridor for the arrival of light rail transit in 2018. It may also be cheaper than earlier rerouting plans or the option of running light rail through two shallow tunnels beneath the Twin Cities & Western Railroad line.
The contractor, TranSystems of Kansas City, Mo., studied nine different options for freight that had been previously proposed. Then, after its staff members attended community meetings in Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, they drew up their own alternative: a $105-million plan to reroute Kenilworth freight traffic on the Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern, or MN&S, track through St. Louis Park, but on a more northerly route than previously proposed.
Progress on Southwest light rail, a 14.5-mile extension of the soon-to-open Green Line route between Minneapolis and St. Paul, had been hung up for months over the question of what to do with a freight rail line in the Kenilworth Corridor, which is also home to one of the city’s busiest bike and pedestrian trails.
Burying the light rail line in tunnels came with a price tag of $160 million and unanswered questions about the potential impact on water quality in the Chain of Lakes. The Kenilworth Corridor runs between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles, and trains must cross a channel that connects the two lakes.
Rerouting freight traffic through St. Louis Park would allow light rail to run at-grade through Kenilworth, but the only rerouting option acceptable to Twin Cities & Western Railroad was estimated to cost $200 million. Residents of the inner-ring suburb objected to several components of the plan, including construction of a two-story tall berm through the city, the taking of private property and additional freight traffic.
TranSystems spokesman Jim Terry said their proposal is less expensive and requires much less taking of private property. It would not require berms as tall as those previously proposed, and it adds some straight track between curves that rail officials warned were a derailment hazard, Terry said.
Terry, however, cautioned reporters at a State Capitol press conference Jan. 30 that they had not factored in all of the additional costs for the alternative, and that a more detailed estimate would have to come from the Metropolitan Council.
Met Council leaders had been prepared last fall to move ahead with the shallow-tunnel plan because of the high cost and other issues with rerouting freight traffic through St. Louis Park. That angered Minneapolis leaders, who said St. Louis Park agreed in the 1990s to accept a rerouting of freight traffic when the Kenilworth Corridor was identified as a future transit corridor.
Former Mayor R.T. Rybak often criticized the original rerouting proposal as a “Cadillac plan” that was much more expensive than it needed to be. It was a meeting in Gov. Mark Dayton’s office this fall that led Met Council Chair Sue Haigh to delay a vote and take another look at route options and several other light rail issues.
Asked if the previous proposal was “overengineered,” Terry responded: “Not to speak ill of anybody else, I just wish TranSystems was working on this plan all along.”
“By the way, I drive a Cadillac,” he quipped. Mayor Betsy Hodges and policy aide Peter Wagenius attended the press conference. Wagenius also worked closely with Rybak on Southwest light rail.
“A realistic relocation option is on the table, and that’s where my focus is going to be,” Hodges said.
The other study released Jan. 30 looked at the potential impacts of shallow tunnels on water quality. The report by Burns & McDonnell Engineering Company of Bloomington recommended further study of groundwater flow in the Kenilworth Corridor area and close monitoring of water quality before, during and after construction, but it didn’t raise any significant red flags, either.
The study would be a moot point if Met Council, Minneapolis and St. Louis Park can agree on a freight rerouting options.
The TranSystems proposal may not satisfy St. Louis Park or rail officials. It would still result in longer trains passing through the city more frequently, and the new route option still passes close by a high school and grade school, which some have said poses safety concerns.
Several days after the press conference, Twin Cities & Western President Mark Wegner said the railroad’s engineers were still reviewing the proposal.
“[TranSystems] went ahead and said what they said without seeking what our thoughts on the thing were,” Wegner said. “So, I think it was a bit premature.”
Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is requesting further study of a so-called “deep tunnel” option for light rail in the Kenilworth Corridor, a subway-like design that would send trains beneath the channel connecting Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. Park Board commissioners approved a resolution at a Feb. 5 meeting urging project engineers to conduct a detailed feasibility study and a cost comparison with the shallow tunnels.
Estimated to cost $330 million, the deep tunnel plan was previously rejected by a project committee made up representatives of local cities and agencies involved in Southwest light rail planning.
Both the freight rail rerouting and water quality studies are posted online at http://metrocouncil.org/Transportation/Projects/Current-Projects/Southwest-LRT.aspx?source=child.