Southwest LRT committee recommends shallow tunnel

An advisory committee for the Southwest light rail project voted nearly unanimously Wednesday to recommend to the Metropolitan Council that the light rail trains run underground in a shallow tunnel through the scenic and narrow Kenilworth Corridor of Minneapolis, keeping freight alongside it. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak was the lone “no” vote.

The long-awaited vote moves as a recommendation to the full Met Council for a final vote next week. The sticking point of what to do with freight in the Kenilworth Corridor has created controversy between Minneapolis and St. Louis Park for several months. Minneapolis city officials say there was an agreement 17 years ago with St. Louis Park that the city would take the freight once the light rail came in. But in St. Louis Park, the city says it fulfilled its obligations, and groups there are concerned that the freight re-route, which would run on two-story berms, would not be safe, and would require taking homes and businesses to make way for the freight trains.

A biker uses the Kenilworth bike trail alongside freight tracks Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013.

The advisory committee, which includes metro mayors and county officials, last week postponed the vote to try to provide Minneapolis with reassurances. State law says all five cities on the line have to consent to the project before it moves forward.

The $1.55 billion light rail project would be the most expensive public works project in the state.

Met Council chairwoman Susan Haigh said the shallow tunnel option is best because it preserves the Kenilworth Corridor’s green space and bike trails, while still providing access to transit. It’s also cheaper than the $200 million reroute. Met Council staff last week recommended the shallow tunnel option, which costs $160 million.

The resolution approved includes an amendment to maintain the “character and alignment” of existing Kenilworth trails. The resolution was prompted by a motion from Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who said, “We want to make sure we are protecting the bike trails.” She said she supports keeping the trails where they are now, understanding that they may have to be tweaked.

Outside the Wednesday meeting at the St. Louis Park Recreation Center, the Ground Zero Coalition once again held up signs against the freight reroute to St. Louis Park. “We don’t trust the Met Council or the CMC (Corridor Management Committee) to look out for our best interest and take the St. Louis Park reroute off the table,” said co-coordinator of the group Jeff Roy. “Again, we are fighting for quality of life for our city.”