Freight Rail Safety Overshadows Committee’s Light Rail Vote

The following article by Dylan Thomas was published in the Southwest Journal on September 15, 2015.

Freight Rail Safety Overshadows Committee’s Light Rail Vote

File photo

Cyclists on the Cedar Lake Trail, which runs parallel to freight rail tracks in the Kenilworth Corridor.
A resolution seeks cooperation from Kenilworth Corridor railroad operator TC&W

Freight rail safety concerns overshadowed a City Council committee hearing Tuesday on the Southwest Light Rail Transit Project.

Just three out of five Transit and Public Works Committee members voted to approve preliminary design plans for the $1.7-billion, Metropolitan Council-led transit project. But the members were unanimous in their support of a second resolution, one that Chair Kevin Reich (Ward 1) said addressed “grave concerns” about commuter-filled light rail trains running within feet of freight trains hauling ethanol and other hazardous materials.

The resolution calls on the city to request emergency response and spill prevention plans from Twin Cities & Western Railroad Company, whose trains operate along the future path of light rail in Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor, a narrow passage that threads between lakes and neighborhoods. It states that the company has “opposed public disclosure” of those plans in the past.

The resolution also seeks a public process to address neighbors’ concerns about rail traffic; public disclosure of freight routing plans during light rail construction; and a report to the city on its liability in the case of a spill, fire or explosion. From the Met Council, the resolution seeks a report on similar instances of freight and light rail co-location elsewhere in the country; inclusion of a hazardous materials response plan in the project’s final environmental impact statement; and a discussion with the city on how the agency will help to ensure TC&W cooperates.

Council Member Linea Palmisano (Ward 13), who co-authored the resolution with Reich and Council Member Lisa Bender (Ward 10), said the full council planned to consider a similar but broader resolution in October that would address rail safety concerns citywide.

Palmisano, Bender and Reich were also the three “yes” votes on the question of SWLRT’s preliminary design. Council Member Cam Gordon (Ward 2) voted against, while Council Member Blong Yang (Ward 5) abstained.

It’s now up to the full City Council to take up the question of local approval for SWLRT, also known as municipal consent. Minneapolis and other cities along the route already gave their OK last year, but the Met Council initiated a second round of municipal consent after project leaders cut the budget back from nearly $2 billion with a series of design alterations this summer.

The two votes followed a roughly 90-minute public hearing in which testimony in favor of 14.5-mile light rail connection between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie was vastly outweighed by safety concerns and a palpable disgust at the public process that will likely bring light rail to the Kenilworth Corridor. Kenwood resident Sarai Brenner said she was made “cynical” by experience, and described the co-location agreement Met Council reached with the city during mediation last year as a “dirty backroom deal.”

“I feel like our system has failed my constituents,” City Council Member Lisa Goodman said, echoing Brenner’s comments and sparking an outburst of applause from supporters in the City Council chambers. The Kenilworth Corridor is located within Goodman’s Ward 7.

In May, construction on an apartment project near the corridor was halted when it was discovered sheet piling had damaged nearby homes. Goodman predicted those same issues would come up again when a similar technique is used to construct a tunnel for light rail trains through the south end of the Kenilworth Corridor.

Goodman said the City Council was unwilling to stand up to the Met Council, describing a vote to approve the line as a foregone conclusion.

“I know the fix is in,” she said. “I know where the votes are.”