Yet Another Complication Arises for Southwest LRT Planners

The following article by Dylan Thomas was updated on February 21, 2014 in the online issue of the Southwest Journal:


Twin Cities & Western Railroad has rejected the latest proposal to shift its rail traffic out of Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor in order to make room for a future Southwest Light Rail Transit line.

The TC&W statement released Thursday was just the latest twist in the troubled planning process for Southwest LRT. On Wednesday, the Counties Transit Improvement Board, or CTIB, a key regional funding partner on the project, stated in a letter to Metropolitan Council Chair Sue Haigh it would withdraw its support if the communities involved can’t come to an agreement by June 30.

A deadlock between Minneapolis and St. Louis Park on plans for freight rail put the planning process in limbo late last year. There was a glimmer of progress when TranSystems, an independent rail consultant hired by Met Council to review rail-rerouting options, recommended a new, potentially cheaper route for freight rail through St. Louis Park on Jan. 30.

While Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said she’d put her focus on the new rerouting plan, St. Louis Park leaders and many residents remained opposed to accepting more rail traffic through their city. Alternatives, including tunneling light rail beneath freight rail in the Kenilworth Corridor, or running both at ground level — which would likely require moving a popular bike and pedestrian path — remain unpopular in Minneapolis, especially at City Hall.

TranSystems originally pegged the cost of its route option at $112 million, but left it to the Met Council to come up with a more detailed cost estimate. That was released Thursday. Factoring in right-of-way acquisitions, contingency costs and other factors, Met Council planners estimate the TranSystems’ alternative at about $220–$240 million, comparable to the estimated $235–$250 million for tunneling light rail through Kenilworth.

TC&W President Mark Wegner said the review of the TranSystems proposal by South Dakota-based Civil Designs, Inc., or CDI, indicates the route would be less efficient, less safe and more costly to operate on than the Kenilworth Corridor.

Wegner said the rail industry is increasingly relying on “unit trains”  made up of 100–120 cars that can stretch to more than a mile in length, and that tightly spaces S-curves and undulations in the track  alignment proposed by TranSystems posed a derailment hazard. Between  November 2012 and October 2013, 192 trains of that length traversed the Kenilworth Corridor, he said.

A new signal included in the TranSystems proposal would lead to costly  delays, he added.

Speaking at Thursday’s meeting of the Southwest LRT Corridor Management Committee, whose members represent the local governments and agencies involved in the project, St. Louis Park City Manager Tom Harmening reiterated his city’s concerns over the TranSystems proposal.

“The [TC&W] railroad has said the proposal is not safe,” Harmening said. “That carries a lot of weight with us, as well.”

Mayor Betsy Hodges said Wegner’s letter was not the final word, and that she hadn’t “ceded veto power to TC&W.”

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who also chairs CTIB, reacted skeptically to Wegner’s safety concerns. McLaughlin said TranSystem’s designs meet industry standards for safety set by American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association, or AREMA.

“I’m not shocked that they [TC&W] are saying it’s not good,” he said. “Having said that, I’m not ready to roll over.”

Ultimately, arguments on both sides may end up in district court or get a hearing front he Surface Transportation Board. Wegner said his “60-plus shippers” would make their case with the STB if it came to that, adding that he expected many to make an appearance at the next Corridor Management Committee meeting in March.

On Thursday, McLaughlin told members of that committee CTIB does not favor one particular alternative, but he urged members of the committee to converge on one of the alternatives quickly. A day earlier, CTIB unanimously approved a resolution to withdraw financial support from Southwest LRT and reallocate the dollars to another project, Bottineau LRT, if project leaders didn’t meet the June deadline.

The CTIB letter, signed by McLaughlin, notes that delays may jeopardize the project’s place in the queue for federal New Starts funds. Federal dollars are expected to cover roughly half the total Southwest LRT project costs, now estimated at about $1.55 billion.

Thursday afternoon, Haigh, the Met Council chair, released a statement indicating a decision would come before CTIB’s deadline.

“Partners have always acknowledged the value of continuing to advance this critical regional transportation project, but with the appropriate level of deliberation,” Haigh wrote. “The Met Council intends to vote on a recommendation in April after we have had adequate time to review the independent consultants’ reports and the evaluation and response to them from communities, partners and technical experts.”