Southwest Light Rail Transit line on hold

11:55 PM, Oct 16, 2013   |    comments
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Kenilworth Trail in Mpls

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Metropolitan Council will delay a key vote on the design and route of the Southwest Light Rail Transit line, due to objections raised by Minneapolis leaders.

"We're going to work with Minneapolis and take another look and see, is there anything we've missed?"

Met Council Chairperson Susan Haigh told KARE Wednesday, after her decision to table the issue for 60 to 90 days.

"We're going to ask, 'Is there a viable, pragmatic alternative that could work to relocate freight rail'?"

Her move came a day following a private meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton, Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak and House Speaker Paul Thissen, a Minneapolis Democrat.

Dayton, who appoints all members of the Met Council, asked Haigh to delay a final decision because of Rybak's concerns about the proposed tunnel's potential impact on lake water.

The regional planning and transportation agency's board appeared ready to approve a route that would bury a section of the $1.5 billion light rail line in two shallow tunnels east of Cedar Lake in Minneapolis.

That would accomplish the goal of squeezing the transit into an old railroad corridor that still includes an active freight line and the Kenilworth biking and walking trail.  The trail would be restored after the tunnels are built.

The shallow tunnel plan would also mitigate most noise issues for residents of the nearby upscale Kenwood Neighborhood. And it would spare St. Louis Park residents from an alternative plan that would've placed the train on a 20-foot berm close to schools.

"We zeroed in on tunnels, and we found that the shallow tunnel option would do what communities wanted," Met Council member Jennifer Munt told KARE.

She spent the past two years gathering public input a chair of the Community Advisory Committee, which held regular public meetings and took testimony on various routing options.

"The shallow tunnel plan doesn't require us to take homes or businesses. It buries the trains so that there won't be 220 trains a day going past the town homes along Kenilworth trail."

The shallow tunnel plan was endorsed on a vote of 15-to-1 by the Southwest Corridor Management Committee, an advisory group that includes elected leaders from Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Hopkins, St. Louis Park and Minneapolis.

But Minneapolis leaders are still not satisfied with the shallow tunnel compromise, and insisted on more time and more studies.

"For a neighborhood that has already agreed to accept 220 trains a day, we need to make sure there's no other alternative," Mayor Rybak told KARE Wednesday.

"We also have to make sure this plan out there to dig these tunnels doesn't ruin the lakes. I'm very committed to light rail. But more than anything I'm committed to making sure I protect those lakes."

Rybak and other Minneapolis leaders are unhappy that freight traffic, though limited, still runs through the Kenilworth corridor.  They believed they had a commitment from the rail carriers that the line would be used only temporarily, until the light rail became a reality.

"This situation wasn't created by Minneapolis or St. Louis Park," Rybak asserted.

"It was created when the railroads went back on their word."

But Munt worries the political landscape may change by January when the Met Council resumes consideration of the route. November's municipal elections will change the makeup of the city councils in all five cities along the line.

"If the Met Council today had voted to the advance the shallow tunnels, then the city councils would've had an opportunity to vote on it this year, before new city councils are seated next year."

She noted that current elected leaders in those cities are up to speed on the issues, and supportive of light rail. In January a new cast of characters will take power, who may not buy into the concept, let alone the proposed route.

If the project is delay past 2014, Munt noted, a change of power in Washington could also change the outlook for the $750 million in federal aid project planners have banked on until now.

(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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