Updated: 01/30/2014 10:51 PM
Created: 01/30/2014 6:22 PM KSTP.com
By: Beth McDonough
It's a controversial topic affecting two communities: Minneapolis and St. Louis Park. Which is the best place to handle both freight rail and light rail for the Southwest Light Rail project?
It's the biggest and most expensive light rail project yet, costing $1.5 billion dollars. The 15.8 mile LRT project would extend the green line from downtown Minneapolis to the western suburbs of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie.
Thursday we learned about the top choice. That's after nine plans were studied by independent experts. Seven plans were thrown out, leaving two.
The Kenilworth Corridor is preferred, because the rail is already running there. But we learned of a back-up plan. It's been modified, and it goes through St. Louis Park.
The two studies (below) looked at the pros and cons of both. Paying especially close attention to the results was Mayor of Minneapolis Betsy Hodges.
It was Minneapolis that stood in the way last fall, loudly opposing the Kenilworth Corridor plan. It would add rail service next to the existing freight train traffic by digging two underground tunnels. The price tag is $20-300 million.
Three months, two studies and one delay later, not much has changed.
Here's the concern: the Kenilworth Corridor proposal keeps freight and transit separate, plus it's home to the popular Kenilworth Trail. That means the narrow stretch of Minneapolis would have to accommodate three forms of transportation: freight, rail and bicyclists or pedestrians.
"There's something wrong with everything we've tried so far," according to Jim Terry of Transystem, an independent consulting firm based in Kansas City. That includes plan B, the MN&S North option. It brings back the contentious idea of re-routing freight rail through St. Louis Park.
The plan is modified, which means safety near the school and neighborhood along Highway 7 is improved according to experts. The plan costs less at $105 million.
The state set aside some money to cover its share of the cost, but more is needed, "Our first hope is to have a dedicated sales tax passed for transit," says Susan Haigh with the Metropolitan Council which oversees the project. Federal funds cover half the project.
Mayor Betsy Hodges released a statement that read in part, “The great news is, there seems to be a viable relocation option on the table... With today’s reports, we now have better options to explore. While I know there is still no outcome that everybody will love, for the first time, we have options that allow us to spread the burden among all of our partners."
St. Louis Park Mayor Jeff Jacobs said, "The results of the draft technical studies released today were on one hand encouraging to St. Louis Park officials and on the other extremely discouraging. While we have not yet had the opportunity to review the results of the consultants' work in detail, we were very encouraged to hear that the draft Water Resources Evaluation found that there should be no negative impacts to the ground water or the lakes in Minneapolis as the result of a shallow LRT tunnel being installed in conjunction with at-grade freight rail tracks. However, we were extremely discouraged, disappointed, and quite frankly shocked that at the 11th hour a so-called viable freight rail reroute through St. Louis Park has now been identified by the consultant."
"It's very disconcerting," said Jamie LaPray, co-chair of Safety in the Park, a group formed to fight a freight rail re-route through St. Louis Park.
LaPray said the freight line re-route would come far too close to the Park Spanish Immersion School, and would demolish several nearby homes and businesses.
If the idea was to look for different options, find something else that would work in case the shallow tunnel idea wasn't good, then they needed to look at all of the options," LaPray said.
She said the scope of the new report wasn't nearly broad enough.
When asked what would have to happen for her to support a freight rail re-route through St. Louis Park, LaPray replied, "Just what we've always said. They have to make the people on the MN&S (freight rail line) as safe in the future as they are today. That would mean moving schools. That would mean moving, buying out homes."
"There isn't a good way to re-route. It will tear apart our community," LaPray said.
The public will get a say on the proposals at town hall meetings next month. Then the full Met Council will vote on the project by the end of March. After that, the municipal consent process kicks-in, where each city along the route has to give its OK. If not, then the project could be held up again.
The Met Council predicts the Southwest Light Rail Project would add 30,000 households and 60,000 new jobs to the area by 2030.
If the project is approved, construction is scheduled to begin in 2015, and the train is scheduled to be up and running by 2018.