Why Minneapolis SHOULD NOT consent to the SWLRT tunnel plan

[For an opposing take on the SWLRT tunnel, see Alex’s post here.]

The City of Minneapolis learned about the proposed shallow tunnel option for the Southwest Light Rail project earlier this spring. Today, the Metropolitan Council was scheduled to go forward with a vote to approve the shallow tunnel option as the solution to the freight rail issue–had it not been for Governor Dayton stepping in on Tuesday to request a three month delay to study the options.

The “cut and cover” plan, also known as the shallow tunnel, will bury two lines of light rail in the Kenilworth Corridor. It will emerge from the tunnel for about 1000 feet to cross the channel between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles, this portion of the route (which is very narrow already) will have all modes at grade. Many of the engineering details (including the location of the bike trail across the channel) remain unknown. Of the five reasons given by the Metropolitan Council for selecting the shallow tunnel option, three of the reasons are something like, “the shallow tunnel will disturb the neighborhood less than all three lines at grade.” The only problem with that reasoning is that the neighborhood would probably disagree (10 foot high crash walls, possible non-stop horn signaling, and essentially 1/6th of the entire trail would have all three modes at grade). The other reason is that it costs $40 million less than relocating freight through St. Louis Park.

The cost of the shallow tunnel has dramatically increased the price tag of this project. Already, the project cost-effectiveness has a rating of “medium-low” by the FTA New Starts program, and that was  when the cost estimate was still $1.25 billion. The current project estimate is now $1.56 billion. If the Kenilworth Corridor alignment was chosen primarily for cost savings, that reason has now evaporated.

Minneapolis has been prepared to sacrifice one of the most popular natural recreation areas in the city (over 1 million users per year) in exchange for light rail, having been just barely sold on the alignment by the county for its cost-effectiveness. “Those who say that we’re being inflexible forget that we went with someone else’s alignment” said Rybak. Now that the story has changed, it is an even more bitter pill to swallow. Especially because the shallow tunnel option also eliminates the 21st station. The benefits of this project for Minneapolis keep shrinking, while the costs, both in money and green space, keep climbing. Even with light rail buried in the corridor, it will never return to the beautiful wooded area that it is today. The “cut and cover” tunnels can only support grass and vegetation, but not trees. So for all that money, there won’t even be trees…

Kenilworth Trail

Mayor Rybak’s requests for further study of the freight options as well as study of the serious environmental concerns of the shallow tunnel have been repeatedly ignored. The Metropolitan Council was completely prepared to advance the shallow tunnel option, despite Mayor Rybak’s lone “No” vote. Whether or not relocation of freight is a good idea, or whether St. Louis Park made an agreement 20 years ago to accept the relocated freight is a debate that can go on and on. But relocating the freight line was one of the terms under which Minneapolis made the difficult decision to support the Kenilworth Corridor alignment. To consent to this project, is to consent to a flawed process. It is a process that has disregarded the most basic requests of Minneapolis. To consent would set a dangerous precedent for the city’s relationship with the region.

If the project is at an impasse because of the freight issue, forcing a bad plan on Minneapolis is not the way to move forward. (it is always good to remember that the Metropolitan Council does not actually need consent from Minneapolis to go forward; it would be unprecedented, but not illegal).

Not only does this impasse present a chance for Minneapolis to undo the missed opportunity of the Uptown alignment, it gives Minneapolis the chance to save a treasured part of the soul of this city.

17 thoughts on “Why Minneapolis SHOULD NOT consent to the SWLRT tunnel plan

  1. Andrew

    Right on. This is whole project is a crazy-expensive shuttle bus for Eden Prairie residents to commute to downtown. Minneapolis is getting the worst possible outcome of the deal.

    The more I look at SWLRT and see how much of Minneapolis it skips, and how likely the proposed stations are going to be underutilized, and that there’s already an existing freight line – why don’t we just put in commuter rail instead of light rail?

    Reduce the stations to a handful of stops, use Northstar-like trains, run it each way every hour, and it can even still end at Target Field. Re-use what’s already there.

  2. David

    There are not trees where the tunnels would be right now. The bike trail will be over the tunnels.

    Mark Fuhrman confirmed no horns or bells will sound in the corridor.

    It “doesn’t benefit Minneapois” only if you consider Minneapolis as limited to the neighborhoods near the lakes. The whole Northside will benefit as will downtown. HUGELY!

    Ah, whatever, it’s not worth it. This thing is going to happen and thank God for that. The delay is just to settle some nerves.

    1. David

      Let me correct that a bit. It “doesn’t benefit Minneapolis” only if you consider the area immediately around the 21st street station to be Minneapolis. Uptown will be served quite well by the Midtown streetcar connection.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Just posing the question as none of the documents I’ve seen go in to more detail. How many of these trees are ones that will never, can never grow back? The presentation I saw talks of about how locating the trail over the tunnel allows for a restoration area. What type and how many trees can grow in this space, and how long will they take to mature? I’m just curious as my assumption was the majority of tree loss would be temporary, maybe I’m mistaken.

      1. Kasia McMahonKasia

        A friend of mine spoke with Jim Alexander (engineer for the SWLRT project) who explained that the tunnel digging would be 37 ft wide (so 9 ft more than the trail). He explained that trees cannot be planted on top of the tunnel, only grass and shrubs. The tree loss estimate is probably low because of the disruption to the root system of trees near the construction.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          Fair enough. From the drawings (which seem semi-technical) shown in their presentation, it seems like the most of the extra tunnel width (compared to the trail) would sit on the freight track side, giving the possibility of some on the S/E side for re-planting? I don’t know for sure. The other thing to consider is the relatively short length of the extremely narrow portion of the trail. While the 1,000 estimate may be low, how many of these are further north/south of the pinch point that could reasonably be re-planted?

          Obviously we need to know this information to feel confident in our opinions, it would be good if the delay we have here could not only address the tunnel’s water concerns, freight options, but also long-term vegetation impacts.

  3. John Bailey

    There are fair arguments against this alignment, some of which I’m sympathetic too, but the recreation argument articulated in this essay and in others I’ve read seems weakest. Of all the sections of the city, Kenilworth does not have a dearth of recreation areas, parks, and trees. They would seem to be in abundance. (However, this isn’t true throughout Minneapolis where many neighborhoods lack accessible and safe parks.) Not to sound like Dick Cheney, but these aren’t old growth trees. My understanding is that they are to be replaced. Yes, it is regrettable to have to take them out, and it will be the case the new trees will be younger, smaller, and providing less shade cover for a period of time, but they will grow back. As to the disruption from the construction, I would be hugely bummed if this was my bike commute during the construction, but I’d also be hugely bummed if I had a small business on University Avenue during Green Line construction. I think the regional benefits (and eventual local benefits) outweigh this issue. That is the nature of the infrastructure building beast in cities.

    I also don’t think the trail is being “sacrificed.” My understanding is that the trail is still intended to co-locate with the LRT. I suppose this might lose some of the “bucolic” feel, but it is and has been for many years, designated as a transportation corridor. Obviously, we want our transportation corridors to enhance the surrounding neighborhoods and burden them as little as possible, but biking near an LRT seems like a reasonable tradeoff. Maybe I’m weird (this just in…I am weird) but I actually think it would be kind of fun.

    Let me make one important caveat: while I’m less sympathetic to the recreational “losses” from the alignment, I’m a zealot about keeping the bike commuting access. I know these are related issues, but not the same. To me, that is the best part of the trail now is that it provides direct and safe bike access to the largest job and event destination in the state. When I hear chatter that parts of the bike trail may need to be re-routed in certain sections, my antennae goes up. If that absolutely has to happen, then any other location should be car-free, direct, and with as few stop signs as possible. Sharrows on neighborhood streets are no substitution.

    1. Kasia McMahonKasia

      My argument was not that recreation areas trump LRT, its that Minneapolis has reluctantly accepted a deal that has now gotten worse. Its a deal that vastly benefits the suburbs at the expense of Minneapolis. I didn’t go into all of the accommodations that the other cities have received, but for example, Eden Prairie was given a more expensive alignment in order to spare their HCRRA land (SW Regional LRT Trail, which like ours, has become a scenic recreational trail).

      All Minneapolis has asked for was further time to study the options and that request was ignored (until Dayton stepped in). This plan is a double whammy for sprawl: make dense neighborhoods in the city less attractive & invest in transit that serves the suburbs. If someone wants to live near a wooded recreation area, they’re going to have to move to Eden Prairie.

      The trees will not be replaced (see comment above). Which, like you said, is perfectly fine for some bike commuters. But I for one, think biking the Kenilworth Trail is freaking breathtaking.

  4. Morgan

    The way I see it, moving the freight trains is what Minneapolis gets out of this project. The line does not benefit Mpls very much otherwise. The Rybak quote you provided is 100% correct.

    If the freight is not moved there isn’t a deal to be made.

  5. John Bailey

    I hear your point. You probably have more details on which suburbs got which deals so I will yield to your knowledge of this. I like the Kenilworth trail now, and it makes a nice loop for me to go from Midway in StP along the Greenway and then hang a right onto Kenilworth and continue back to river and back home. I don’t if I’d quite say the trail is “freaking breathtaking,” I could probably meet you halfway and say I’m “reasonably stoked” to be on the trail, but I suppose this is rather subjective.

    Like I say I have lots of skepticism/cynicism about the making the SWLRT stops walkable and bikeable places. But I disagree that this route is all benefit for the suburbs. I wish weren’t so, but the reality is the southwest suburbs are a large jobs destination in our region. Providing transit opportunities for folks in the city to get to those jobs is critical. There is a strong argument that different alignments could perhaps do this better, but I think this route will still do this. As for your “double whammy for sprawl” argument in your second paragraph, that’s perhaps a tunnel too far for me to buy.

  6. Adam MillerAdam

    What’s supposed to happen to the freight while the build the cut and cover tunnel? Why is what will happen temporarily not something that could be permanent?

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      The presentation given on Aug 28 shows the freight rail shifting slightly to the west before sheet pile is installed, then the cut and cover tunnel is built. The freight rail then shifts back over to the east to its original location, slightly atop the tunnel.

      I think they can do this by installing temporary rail and switches when trains aren’t running by, then routing it there short-term… Maybe someone else can confirm this?

      1. Adam MillerAdam

        Thanks for you the answer (and for keeping up on all of these details).

        So the freight will keep running through the corridor during construction? Huh. That seems strange, because doesn’t that imply enough room for co-location? Or maybe the tunnel means that the LRT doesn’t need as much space around it and is actually narrower than the right of way it would need to be on the surface?

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          It may be the case that a tunnel requires less space than at-grade, particularly for buffer space to the trail. But I think the main thing is that the bike/walk trail would be impacted during tunnel construction. Without buying out the townhomes (or doing something creative like having LRT and freight share one track), co-location at grade can’t happen.

  7. Adam DuininckAdam Duininck

    Kasia, thanks for writing this thoughtful piece. I agree with your analysis but would clarify that in addition to Gov. Dayton weighing in which clearly made the difference, there were also local elected officias and Met Council members who were also advocating to slow down and address Minneapolis’s concerns.

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