More details on our take on SWLRT and Kenilworth Trail

Photo Flickr/Mike Hicks

January 7 the Star Tribune ran a story about the proposed Southwest Light Rail line and potential impacts on the Kenilworth Trail. It includes quotes from Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee Chair Nick Mason, Midtown Greenway Coalition ED Soren Jensen, and me. The frame is that bicyclists say that Southwest LRT "can work."

I want to add additional info on this very complex situation and clarify where the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition is at on Southwest LRT.

The Coalition's position

The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition supports building out the Twin Cities metro area transit network, including the Southwest LRT line. Good transit connections are important for bicyclists and for Minneapolis and the region.

The Coalition strongly supports the relocation of freight rail service from the Kenilworth Corridor. We strongly oppose any permanent elimination or rerouting of the Kenilworth Trail. Other potential options have a number of potential questions that are being studied; if studies show other options to be feasible, we will work with partners to evaluate details related to the trail.

The Kenilworth Trail is used by more than three thousand bicyclists per day, according to the most recent City of Minneapolis Bicycle Counts. The trail is an incredibly important corridor for commuters between southwest Minneapolis – and communities outside Minneapolis – and the major job centers downtown. It forms a critical connection between the Midtown Greenway, Cedar Lake Trail, and Cedar Lake Parkway.

Current possibilities and situation

There seem to be five options for Southwest LRT as it relates to the Kenilworth Corridor at this time. They all have supporters, opponents, and unanswered questions. The options with some info on where they stand:

1) Freight is rerouted from the Kenilworth Corridor and the light rail is built on the freight rail tracks.

This is certainly the best solution from our perspective and also is strongly supported by the City of Minneapolis. It would minimize impacts to the trail and greenspace and fulfills the original plan developed more than a decade ago.

The freight railroad company, Twin Cities & Western, has an enormous amount of power in this situation and, unfortunately, has placed unfeasible demands on a reroute in St. Louis Park. The current proposed freight reroute through St. Louis Park is bitterly opposed by many residents there. The Metropolitan Council is currently studying other potential freight reroute options and is continuing negotiations with the railroad, at Governor Dayton's request. We hope that study, due in late January, yields a strong potential solution. We will provide an update after the study is out.

2) A shallow tunnel is built to co-locate freight rail and LRT while keeping the Kenilworth trail.

The shallow tunnel is the presumed choice of the Metropolitan Council, which oversees the project. Current studies are evaluating whether the shallow tunnel might impact Cedar Lake or Lake of the Isles and also potential greenspace and landscaping plans with shallow tunnel option. Those are obviously very important considerations for the feasibility of a shallow tunnel option.

It is unclear exactly what the shallow tunnel would mean for the trail environment until these studies are finalized. As was stated in the Star Tribune article, we think a bicycle solution is possible, but there are other issues that need to get sorted first. The shallow tunnel would likely lead to a two- to three-year Kenilworth trail detour.

The shallow tunnel is currently estimated to cost an extra $160 million to the project. Some worry that a shallow tunnel could be accepted now and then eliminated in a later project stage to save money.

3) Build the freight rail, LRT, and bike trail all in the Kenilworth Corridor with no tunnel.

This option is not discussed a lot, so it isn't fully clear how feasible it is. It would certainly mean eliminating most of the greenspace and trees in the Kenilworth Corridor, which is rightly an unpopular thing to do. It would likely also require the demolition of a townhome complex and narrowing the Kenilworth trail. There would be lots of questions to answer and opposition to overcome for this to move forward.

4) Reroute the Kenilworth trail to locate freight rail and LRT together in the Kenilworth Corridor.

This option has garnered support from some at the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which will fund a significant portion of SWLRT. It would eliminate the Kenilworth Trail and reroute bicyclist and walkers on streets and trails around the west side of Cedar Lake. We strongly oppose this option because it would mean a 1-mile detour for many of the 3,000+ bicyclists who use the corridor on an average day. It would also mean eliminating significant greenspace.

5) Pause the project to find a different route in Minneapolis.

Some are saying that a Kenilworth alignment was the wrong choice for Minneapolis because it bypasses the dense corridors in Uptown and other neighborhoods. Some are arguing that the project should be delayed so that the route alignment can be changed.

The Metropolitan Council has said that changing the alignment would require a delay of several years. This would threaten the Southwest LRT project entirely because it would certainly fall out of the queue for federal funding. Others have questioned the need for a reroute delay to take several years, but there is clearly uncertainly about how long it would take or the impacts of such a delay.

It's unclear what alternative route would be feasible and work better. A Midtown Greenway-Nicollet Ave alignment was the only one to warrant significant study a few years ago and it was passed over for a number of reasons. There was concern on how that alignment would impact the Midtown Greenway and whether LRT was the appropriate scale for Nicollet where streetcar is currently being planned. An I-394 route and Hennepin Avenue route have been mentioned, but have challenges and questions as well.

Given the uncertainty of delay, the project history, and the amount of work that has gone into SW LRT with a current alignment, there will be a lot of resistance to a delay to realign. This resistance comes especially from key stakeholders at Hennepin County and other counties and the Metropolitan Council.

Next steps

You can find more information on the three pending Metropolitan Council studies here. We will provide another update when there is more information to report from the bicycling perspective.


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