A Southwest Light Rail Explainer

August 03, 2014, back seat of a Toyota 4Runner, Highway 169, Central Minnesota:

“So what’s going on with that train stuff?”

“Ah, it’s kind of a long story at this point.”

Without Even Mentioning Light Rail

The contentious portion of our story begins in the 1990s, when the intersection of Hiawatha Avenue and Lake Street was reconstructed. What’s now the Midtown Greenway was previously an active freight rail corridor, with trains crossing Hiawatha Avenue at grade. Twin Cities & Western Railroad (TCW) was and is currently the primary user of the route, carrying agricultural and other products from western Minnesota to points east. Prior to the reconstruction, a decision was made to cut the freight rail crossing due to the high levels of car traffic on Hiawatha Avenue and the tricky geometry required to either elevate the tracks over or tunnel them under the roadway (page 3).

The freight rail route was moved to the Kenilworth Corridor, an area that’s been used a rail corridor and railyard with varying degrees of intensity since the 1870s. The Kenilworth Corridor splits off of the Midtown Greenway northwest of Lake Calhoun and sneaks between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles before breaking into an open area under the bluffs of the Kenwood neighborhood. The trains continue towards Downtown Minneapolis and cross the Mississippi River before swinging south towards St. Paul. A popular bike trail parallels the freight tracks throughout the corridor.

Previous Midtown route in black, current Kenilworth route in Green

Previous Midtown route in black, current Kenilworth route in Green

At the time of the freight rail reroute, the intention was to use the Kenilworth Corridor temporarily (one to six years) while a permanent route around Minneapolis was worked out through St. Louis Park. There was a Superfund site in St. Louis Park, the Golden Auto Site, that needed to be cleaned up right around the same time. There was, maybe, an agreement between St. Louis Park and Hennepin County that the county would assist with remediation at the Golden Auto Site in exchange for taking the freight rail. However, it would appear that no one got the final agreement in writing, which, in retrospect, is hilarious.

And the Light Rail?

Light rail has been proposed in the Kenilworth Corridor for literally decades. A vintage 1987 Star Tribune article about Kenilworth contains the phrase “…light-rail transit that could run between downtown and the western suburbs in a few years,” and other highlights. The planning process continued through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. In the mid-aughts, the Minnesota Legislature overrode Tim Pawlenty’s veto and passed a bill allowing the seven county metropolitan area to tax itself to fund transit projects, and things got a little more serious. With the relatively easy to build (almost all the right of way was already acquired) Blue Line out of the way, and the obvious Green Line connecting Downtown Minneapolis and Downtown St. Paul in the bag, less speculative planning for the Southwest Corridor got underway.

A required alternatives analysis (AA) compared two routes (and others) for a southwesterly-oriented light rail route from Downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. The AA is extremely hard to locate on any local government’s website, though approximately half an hour of searching did find it here.

Much has been written about the AA process on streets.mn and elsewhere. The cliff notes version is that one route (“3A”) followed the Kenilworth Corridor out of the west side of Downtown Minneapolis along existing Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority (HCRRA) land to meet up with more HCRRA land in St. Louis Park, and took that out towards Eden Prairie. The other route (“3C”) had a couple variants, but essentially followed Nicollet Mall through Downtown Minneapolis, proceeded down Nicollet Avenue in a tunnel through South Minneapolis, to meet up with HCRRA land in the Midtown Greenway, and then head west out of the city.

Southwest Light Rail alternatives through South Minneapolis

Southwest Light Rail alternatives through South Minneapolis (click to enlarge)

There are lots of numbers on the links above, but basically, 3A was projected to cost somewhat less than 3C and have somewhat higher ridership. Among other things, the AA included a station along 3A, here, in Kenwood, with 1,000 (!) projected daily boardings in 2030 (page 32) and a station along 3C at the Uptown Transit Station with about 1,600 (!?) projected daily boardings in 2030 (page 27). It also projected that the 3C Beltline Station in St. Louis Park would have several times more walk up riders than the Uptown Station (page 27). An observer prone to believing conspiracy theories might suggest that the process was intentionally steered to favor the 3A alignment, but no Deep Throat character has emerged as of this writing. Not too long after this all took place, the Cost Effectiveness Index, used by the federal government to evaluate the viability of transit projects, was reformulated.

3A was selected as the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) in 2009 and the real engineering work started. The plan was to put light rail in the Kenilworth Corridor and reroute the freight rail to St. Louis Park, but it came to light more recently that that would be considerably more complicated than we had thought. Putting the TCW freight trains on top of a two story berm would be required, and some amount of land would need to be taken, including chunks near St. Louis Park High School–potentially their football field. (Disclaimer: The author played mediocre football as a freshman at St. Louis Park High School)

St. Louis Park did not react positively to this development.

Earlier this year, we flew in some consultants from Kansas City for more study, but at some point the idea of the freight rail reroute fell out of popular conversation, setting up where we are right now.

Potential St. Louis Park freight rail realignments (TranSystems)

Potential St. Louis Park freight rail realignments (TranSystems)

A Tunnel Under a Bike Trail!

After the consensus shifted away from a freight rail reroute, the conversation about “co-location” in the Kenilworth Corridor started in earnest. This went over about as well as the earlier conversations in St. Louis Park, but with a new dimension: money. The Kenilworth Corridor skirts some of Minneapolis’ most tony neighborhoods, whose residents also happen to be political donors–if you want, search for the 55405 and 55416 zip codes here. All that said, I’m personally hesitant to demonize the people in the Kenwood and Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhoods any more than the people in St. Louis Park. Disregarding the train-crashing-into-the-high-school hysteria in St. Louis Park, the two groups’ arguments are essentially the same–they didn’t want trains in their backyards. There may be a term for that, but it’s kinda played out.

Unfortunately, the Kenilworth Corridor is not large enough to accommodate the freight trail, light rail, and bike trail without razing homes along the sides–notably, these townhomes. This was considered not great, politically. The pinch point is tight enough that you can only fit one set of train tracks and the bike trail in there. Simply moving the bike trail isn’t the answer. So a couple sets of tunnels were considered: a “shallow tunnel” and a “deep tunnel”. The deep tunnel would have dipped underground, subway style, for the length of the Kenilworth Corridor and cost a whopping $330 million dollars, and it was ruled out. The shallow tunnel would have had trains running below ground on both sides of the canal, but with tracks over the canal connecting Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles, at a cost of $160 million dollars. There were some concerns that a shallow tunnel around the lakes would mess with the water table, but a study allayed those concerns.

"And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you." - Friedrich Nietzsche

“And when you gaze long into [a shallow tunnel], the [shallow tunnel] also gazes into you.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Last month, a deal was struck betwixt the City of Minneapolis and the Metropolitan Council, essentially scrapping the north shallow tunnel and using that money to restore a station and improve access to others. A potential lawsuit from either the Minneapolis Park Board or the folks in Kenwood is still possible, but the several sets of unsuccessful litigation thrown at the Green Line by the University of Minnesota, Minnesota Public Radio, and others suggests that the courts don’t look favorably upon throwing lawyers into the gears. The Minneapolis City Council still has not voted on the compromise plan, but there was a public hearing shortly after the deal was announced, setting the stage for a full council vote.

Yes, we did skip an Uptown alignment due to the expense of a tunnel under Nicollet Avenue, only to go with building a tunnel under a bike trail instead.


The general sense right now is that the project will probably be built. The Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Hopkins, and St. Louis Park City Councils have all voted to grant municipal consent for the project. The extended extended extended deadline for the Minneapolis City Council to vote on municipal consent is August 30th, and they will probably approve it, and then we can move on to wrap up federal funding this fall.


For one, get into consulting, like yesterday.

For another, probably get things in writing, especially in the Go-Go 90s.

A huge amount of criticism has been directed at the political and planning process for the Southwest Corridor, largely because it’s been an enormous debacle (see above), but also because in America, trains are inherently controversial for whatever reason. When Steve Brandt wrote that Star Tribune article about the Southwest Corridor in 1987, there were people who hadn’t been born yet, and those people have since been born and now have their own kids that can walk around and talk about trains. It’s taken thirty years to be on the cusp of something that we knew we wanted to do during the Reagan administration. In that time, the costs of the project have gone up severalfold, the Midtown Corridor rail link was cut, and Eden Prairie has largely filled in.

Peter Wagenius, an aide to Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, had a pretty good quote about it all at a City Council Ways & Means Committee meeting last year:

There are folks who are extraordinarily invested in validating the process that has brought us to this point.

Regardless of how things have played out in Minneapolis City Hall in the past year, this is a pretty good way to sum it all up one sentence. We probably made a bad decision with the routing. Which isn’t an argument for the Nicollet Avenue alignment, because that alignment was not great, but rather an argument against building very expensive transit projects through parkland in cities in order to better serve suburbanites who will, for your $1.7 billion dollar investment, eliminate two car trips per day if they can park for free at a separately-budgeted $10 million dollar park and ride. And we kind of knew this five years ago, but we were already 20 or 25 years into the planning process, and it was really too late to change course without looking silly, or something.

At this point, the extremely elaborate and absurd Rube Goldberg machine of funding that we use to build transit projects prevents us from starting over with a new route. So what we could do is try to not repeat this process, if possible. Is it too late to stop the Blue Line (Bottineau) extension from cutting around North Minneapolis on Olson Memorial Highway, through Theodore Wirth Park on its way to a literal cornfield in Brooklyn Park? If it’s too late for that, what about the Gateway Corridor planning process, where we recently decided to go with $450 million dollars in bus rapid transit to run through mostly undeveloped areas of Oakdale and Lake Elmo? There’s a lot of room for improvement.

Admittedly, it’s very easy to sit on the sidelines and throw rocks at the process while professionals work under complicated circumstances and, at times, confusing political mandates. But policymakers should realize that if we continue to make objectively bad decisions with transit planning, we’re going to continue to have more debacles like this. We can and should do better for the future of our metropolitan area.

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16 Responses to A Southwest Light Rail Explainer

  1. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele August 8, 2014 at 8:56 am #

    I’ve been pushing for this for years — moving or mitigating the TC&W (now a shallow tunnel due to colocation) should be paid with road money, not transit money, since the problem stems from the decision to cut off the old Milwaukee Road / CP mainline when the Lake/Hiawatha SPUI was constructed.

    Another case of transit capital expenses directly or indirectly subsidizing road users.

    • Froggie August 8, 2014 at 9:35 am #

      Correlation does not necessarily imply causation here…there are too many other factors involved. For starters, except for the 1985 plan, there were no location studies done to consider whether Southwest was going to use Kenilworth corridor or not. Furthermore, the 1988-90 LRT studies rendered it completely moot with their plan to route Southeast (Hiawatha), South (I-35W) and Southwest all along the Midtown Corridor and into a tunnel under Nicollet or 3rd, which would have required eliminating the TC&W corridor anyway. And this was in part the basis behind severing the link at Hiawtha…it wasn’t all just a road decision.

      But perhaps more importantly, your push is Constitutionally difficult, if not impossible. Call it a fundamental flaw with how we fund transportation, if you will, but the bottom line is that road funds can’t easily just be shifted over to rail or transit, especially at the state level. The only Federal highway funding programs I can think of where you might be able to do this are the Federal Surface Transportation Program (STP) and Congestion Management/Air Quality (CMAQ). There’s precedent with the former…Norfolk used their share of STP funds to help pay for their “The Tide” LRT line. CMAQ is often used for transit, but is also often used for bike/ped.

      But as Federal funding programs, they require a state/local match. The State Constitution specifically requires funds going into the HUTDF (state gas tax, vehicle registration, and 40% of the MVST) to be used for highway purposes, of which rail mitigation clearly is not. The state/local match would either have to come from the local level (read: property taxes), or from the 60% of MVST that goes to transit (as this is nominally a transit project).

      Furthermore, I wouldn’t be so quick to use that argument of “transit capital expenses directly/indirectly subsidizing road users”, as the opposite is true when you consider what the buses run on, plus the case of highway funds (including HUTDF) being used to build bus shoulder lanes (probably the best Constitutional workaround for using state highway funds for a transit purpose).

      • Matt Steele
        Matt Steele August 8, 2014 at 10:07 am #

        I’m not arguing that there’s correlation, and I’m not arguing for specific funds to be applied to specific projects. All I’m saying, and it’s true, is that a significant expenditure for Southwest LRT is directly caused by the decision to build a SPUI at Lake and Hiawatha which caused a rail line reroute. It was the direct cause: If TC&W trains still reached St. Paul Midway via the Short Line Bridge, because a temporary reroute was not needed, because a SPUI fail wasn’t built… we’d be saving a hundred million dollars on SWLRT.

        • Froggie August 8, 2014 at 10:52 am #

          Yet that’s exactly what you said before:

          “moving or mitigating the TC&W (now a shallow tunnel due to colocation) should be paid with road money, not transit money”.

          I also pointed out how it wasn’t just solely a road decision. Plus there are a number of factors that planners 20-25 years ago simply couldn’t have foretold when they decided to pursue the MNS connection (Superfund difficulty, SLP’s change-of-face, the Twins Stadium hampering BNSF expansion, elimination of the much-more-direct rail connector near Hopkins, etc etc).

          Furthermore, it wasn’t just the decision to build a SPUI at Lake/Hiawatha. Regardless of what was decided at Lake/Hiawatha (remember, a 6-lane at-grade intersection was also considered there), it was determined early on that there was too much traffic on Hiawatha to allow for the at-grade Midtown crossing to remain. IMO, they could’ve just kept Hiawatha elevated between Lake and 28th, though for some reason (cost?) they chose not to do that. Though that would’ve made building the Hiawatha line a bit more challenging (but not impossible).

          Finally, keeping freight rail in the Midtown corridor would’ve likely kept us from building a highly successful bike freeway in the corridor, nevermind it would’ve prevented any future transit use. Yes, there’s a lot of “bad” and cost involved with the decision, but it wasn’t all bad.

          • Matt Steele
            Matt Steele August 8, 2014 at 11:09 am #

            Yes, and you said it wasn’t possible due to current federal law and state constitution issues. And we should change those. A dollar is fungible, a political reality is temporary.

            • Froggie August 8, 2014 at 11:53 am #

              I didn’t say it wasn’t possible. Just that it’d be extremely difficult and there are only certain funding pots you could touch for such an endeavor.

  2. Mike Hicks August 8, 2014 at 9:32 am #

    Thanks Nick — an excellent writeup with a great selection of maps and links.

    One of my big issues with transit planning is that the study corridors seem to be flung out way too far to start out with, and we end up trying to reach endpoints that don’t always make sense. Was Southwest ever planned to go somewhere other than Eden Prairie? (Actually, I suspect it was studied as an alternative to commuter rail out to Norwood-Young America…)

    Even when study corridors are shortened, there’s still a vestigial link tugging on the end of the line. We’re seeing that right now with the Gateway Corridor, which was studied all the way out to Eau Claire, but has now been truncated to end in Woodbury. The problem there is that Lake Elmo just to the north has long been anti-development (at least at the densities that the Metropolitan Council has wanted — there has still been significant large-lot development). Personally, I think that route should be diverted southward into the core of Woodbury rather than skirting the northern edge of the city.

    Transit corridors have gone through planning processes that are probably designed for highways. It’s ridiculous to me that we’ve come up with a fairly small number of radial routes which spread out very far from each other. Good transit needs to be walkable transit, but just follow the path of the Southwest Corridor and compare it to the planned route of the Orange Line — they’re miles apart.

    I’m not aware of any plans to put anything in between them, even though that would be a good idea. Okay, there’s the Dan Patch corridor running parallel to MN-100 that has been banned from study for many years, but there’d also be good value in something along France Ave, for instance.

    My opinion is that transit planning should generally go the opposite direction — start out with short corridors near our downtowns (Minneapolis, St. Paul, UMN, and maybe even major nodes in some suburbs) and extend them outward on roughly a mile-by-mile basis. That’s closer to what we’ve been seeing with recent streetcar planning — that has been based more around real-world ridership on existing lines, including corridors that had been served by rail in the past. Unfortunately, streetcars are probably not the best way to serve many of those corridors — Nicollet Avenue historically had a very busy streetcar line, and restoring rails there would probably draw more passengers than a streetcar system could comfortably handle (unless the street was closed to cars and the streetcar got good signal priority at intersections — if cars can’t be removed, then the line probably needs to be elevated or put in a tunnel).

    Anyway, I’m fully confident that the route we’ve chosen for SWLRT is a useful one — it just isn’t the top-of-the-heap route that its most outspoken proponents think it is. Too many routes through denser areas were cut out due to the perception of high cost. You can look at a bunch of the arterial streets in south Minneapolis and say they all deserve much better transit than they have today: Hennepin, Lyndale, Nicollet, Chicago, Cedar, and of course the “crosstown” streets of Franklin, Lake, and probably 38th or another street near there. That’s just one section of one city — the valuable corridors around the Twin Cities are too numerous for me to list…

    • Froggie August 8, 2014 at 9:56 am #

      Regarding Southwest endpoints other than Eden Prairie, the original mid-1980s plan had it going to Minnetonka. For the current project, the 4A/4C series of alternatives terminated at Shady Oak Rd.

      Agree with you on the Gateway corridor.

      The rest of your post could conceivably be considered an argument that we should’ve focused on Arterial BRT to the exclusion of just about every lengthy transit corridor (Central LRT being the main exception to this).

      • Mike Hicks August 8, 2014 at 12:08 pm #

        Thanks for the map — it explains how the bike path on that route also has “LRT Trail” in its name.

        I do think that we should really be looking at making an ABRT-style service the default on the busiest and most frequent routes in the Metro Transit system. Should that preclude the eventual conversion to rail? In some cases, sure, but I don’t think that’s true for all the routes. Corridors like Nicollet had sub-5-minute service at peak times in the streetcar era — if we restored rail there, some pretty frequent service would be needed again. The Orange Line may siphon away some traffic, but that bus service is only planned to have a couple of stops in Minneapolis. Orange Line stops will provide very high-frequency service at certain times, but primarily on weekdays at peak times in the peak direction. There’s a big need for day-to-day service.

      • Alex August 10, 2014 at 2:05 pm #

        Just a quibble, but I believe that the first study to contemplate rail in a configuration similar to the SWLRT was the 1973 “A long-range transit improvement program for the study area” done by MnDot at the request of St Louis Park & Golden Valley to determine whether there were feasible transit alternatives to the freewayfication of Hwy 12. The study found that transit would in fact be feasible and was duly ignored. The line studied featured a tunnel under Hennepin Ave and a terminus in Hopkins. In the 70s it seems that urban transit could be considered in the Twin Cities.

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele August 8, 2014 at 10:09 am #

      YES. Our transit outcomes fail so miserably because our transit planning fails miserably. There’s no reason why we should be studying, much less building “backbone transit” to corn fields.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller August 8, 2014 at 10:45 am #

      Its strange to watch people who live in the suburbs talk about rail, in particular as the Green Line opened. They really don’t seem to be able to think about trips that do something other than go from one end of the line to the other.

      They get the Blue Line. They might take it to the airport or MOA or a ball game. They get the Green Line, except they find it frustrating because it doesn’t get them from St. Paul to the airport as fast as Minneapolitans can on the Blue Line or get them between downtowns fast enough.

      But that mentality just gets it all wrong. Transit should be about networks, not series of independent point-to-point trips.

  3. Aaron Isaacs
    Aaron Isaacs August 8, 2014 at 9:50 am #

    If you back up and consider how difficult it is to create a new HIGH SPEED corridor through a developed urban area, you can appreciate the foresight shown by Hennepin County when they acquired the abandoned Minneapolis & St. Louis line to Hopkins in 1984. They found a public transit use for a new state law that was written to allow counties to preserve rural agricultural branch lines following the major wave of rail abandonments that began in the 1970s.

    Let me emphasize the HIGH SPEED aspect of this. Streetcar lines are for short local trips and have value as a redevelopment tool. Southwest fills the critical regional need for a high speed service linking multiple cities. You can’t get that speed by running down local streets, not to mention the political and technical difficulties of squeezing a rail line through existing traffic and parking.

    It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and throw darts at the folks who had to shepherd this project through a political minefield. That is the nature of building anything in today’s NIMBY-friendly environment. The odds are against getting anything done, and it’s a great achievement when a project actually overcomes all the obstacles.

    If you want to criticize someone, start with the hypocritical “liberals” along the Kenilworth who knew damn well this right of way was purchased for light rail 30 years ago and still pulled out all the stops to prevent it.

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele August 8, 2014 at 10:09 am #

      How is a high-speed rail connection to a park & ride in Eden Prairie a critical regional need?

      • Aaron Isaacs
        Aaron Isaacs August 8, 2014 at 11:54 am #

        The primary critical regional need was to connect with St. Louis and Hopkins. I agree that the Eden Prairie extension will be much less productive. If done right, it will replace the express buses that currently carry 1000 daily commuter round trips out of Eden Prairie.

        Of lesser importance, but still helpful, is providing city and inner suburban residents access to a large number of jobs in Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. The bus system currently doesn’t do that.

        • Matt Steele
          Matt Steele August 8, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

          Agreed, this should be starting to SLP and Hopkins.

          Regarding providing access to suburban jobs: I realize that’s the status quo, and we should consider how people get to those jobs.

          But really- The reason why those jobs exist there is because we subsidized the heck out of people (and jobs) moving to the suburbs. We built massive money-draining freeways. We fought wars to provide cheap gas. We set up use-based zoning codes and minimum parking requirements so we could ditch the traditional development pattern that encompassed all of human history up until a few generations ago. If we want to fix the problem, we need to at least stop subsidizing job sprawl away from transit. It is a waste of money to subsidize job sprawl, and then subsidize mediocre transit to serve job sprawl.