Busting the rail bottleneck with new transportation infrastructure


When it comes to eliminating Twin Cities highway bottlenecks, there’s hardly ever any controversy. There was no apparent opposition to rebuilding interchanges such as the Crosstown Commons, the Devil’s Triangle and the I-35E-694 Weave to smooth traffic flows.

It’s been a different story when the Metropolitan Council laid out the planned Southwest light rail line along a narrow strip of land near Cedar Lake already occupied by freight rail tracks and a recreational trail. The council proposed rerouting the freight trains to other tracks in Minneapolis and St. Louis Park. This stirred heated opposition from the railroad as well as residents who would see more trains passing their homes and a local high school.

Now, under pressure from federal transit funders, the council has come up with a slew of new ideas in hopes of meeting all objections.

They include slightly different, safer alignments for relocated freight rail, elevating the Cedar Lake Trail or moving it out of the bottleneck and tunneling or elevating the light rail. There’s even a new proposal to squeeze all three modes into the area at ground level, which planners once said couldn’t be done safely.

At this point, however, no one knows what effect any of these solutions would have on the Southwest’s $1.25 billion budget or its planned construction start in 2015 and service launch in 2018. “Cost impacts of the colocation and relocation concepts will be developed and presented in midsummer,” said a news release from the Southwest project office.

First, the proposals are being floated before the St. Louis Park City Council, Southwest project advisory and management committees and residents at open houses. The city council got a first look Tuesday evening. Here are other scheduled sessions:

  • Joint Southwest Light Rail Transit Business and Community Advisory Committees, 6-8:30 p.m. June 6 at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School
  • Southwest Light Rail Transit Corridor Management Committee, 1-2:30 p.m. June 12 a the Hopkins Center for the Arts.
  • Freight Rail Public Open House, 8-9:30 a.m. and 4:30-7 p.m. June 13 at Benilde-St. Margaret’s.

In addition, public open houses on station design options will be held in cities all along the Southwest route in late June, times, dates and locations to be announced.

If freight trains were moved out of the bottleneck under the new plans, they would use new tracks through St. Louis Park with “gentler curves and a flatter alignment” than originally proposed, according to the news release. This is intended to ease concerns over possible derailments near homes and St. Louis Park High School. The new tracks could skirt the high school football field or run through its current location, which would allow the field to be moved onto the main campus.

The new concepts were developed by technical staff from three affected railroads, Hennepin County, Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Three Rivers Park District, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Minnehaha Creek Watershed District and the St. Louis Park School District.

Phew! That’s a lot of stakeholders, which gives just a hint of the complexities involved in building new transportation infrastructure through a developed urban area. If all of these interests and NIMBY-minded residents can agree on a way forward without the lawsuits that vexed the Central Corridor light rail, it will be a near-miracle.

On top of that, the project’s draft environmental impact statement drew more than 1,000 responses last winter, which planners narrowed to a list of 25 issues to be resolved. Still, they hope to clear them up by September so approval from all the cities on the route from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie can be obtained by year’s end.

“Our desire with the reroute is that it not be a zero-sum game, but something that works for all sides,” Jennifer Mundt, head of the project’s community advisory committee, told Finance&Commerce.

Win-win-win, etc. for all parties will be hard enough to reach. Then there’s the not-insignificant matter of appropriating the remainder of a $125 million state match to lock up $625 million in federal funding for the project. A legislative bottleneck this month left $81 million of that bill unpaid. Long-term state borrowing at historic low interest rates lost out to conservative opposition this time, but it should be a high priority next year to keep the Southwest on track.