Wish you were riding Southwest light rail by now? Blame tunnel vision

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The decision to underground part of Southwest Light Rail Transit’s project in the early 2010s was the likely turning point at which financial problems and delays started to plague the project.

Metropolitan Council
Charlie Zelle


The budget has been slashed by half a billion dollars due to a tunnel that runs between a condo tower, and village of townhomes. The tunnel can also cause delays and construction problems, as Charlie Zelle, Met Council Chair, explains.



has dubbed



“The most difficult and grueling segment of the whole project.”


The SWLRT project may have been completed for the tunnel almost on time and on budget. For the tunnel, passengers could be paying to ride on rail cars they have already bought. For the tunnel, however, the Office of the Legislative Auditor might not have any more reports to provide.

The cursed part of the now-$2.74 billion extension of the current Green Line is
It is now possible to consider the decision to build a tunnel underneath the corridor between Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles, water under the bridge. This decision was made on the 64 percent complete project. It is likely to be a prominent feature in the next auditor reports, due next year. The examination shifts from examining the facts about the blown budget to addressing the questions of who and why.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein


September 8th, House Transportation Committee Chair Frank Hornstein observed something that both troubled and didn’t surprise him in the first report of the Legislative Audit Commission. The various engineering and environmental studies that were done before the final route decision were laid out.



The legislative auditor



The direction of the market changed dramatically between 2009 and 2014.


Minneapolis DFLer pointed out that all studies before 2012 strongly supported relocation. This refers to the removal of freight lines from the corridor in order to make space for light rail and bike trails. All studies after 2012 pointed to colocation, which would have all modes within the same space, with light rail moving underneath the surface at the southern end of corridor. This was because freight lines were not being moved by the Twin Cities and Western Railroad, as well as the city of St. Louis Park.

Source: Corridor Management Committee, “Corridor Management Committee Meeting,” (slide deck, Metropolitan Council, St. Paul, April 2, 2014), 10
Select colocation design for Kenilworth Corridor’s “pinch point”, along Southwest LRT route.


Hornstein stated, “It seems to me… that this decision was really a politically motivated and not technical one.” Independent consultants even found that the alternative plan, which did not require a tunnel to be built, was feasible.


Hornstein stated that they knew this was taking place. But, to put it in chronological order and see the support from St. Louis Park and the railroad in moving this into Kenilworth despite many technical problems previously recognized, it was clear.


He said that the font-weight of 400 ;”>” is now returning to roost because it was expected in the 2010-2012 period. Hornstein preferred a route using Nicollet Mall and Greenway over the existing rail line. He said he was certain that the project would be complete by now if relocation had been the option.

As a way of accommodating three transportation systems, the tunnel is being compressed into a narrow corridor. This includes light rail inside the tunnel, freight rail, and a popular pedestrian/bike path on the surface. During construction, boulders caused problems in a plan to embed steel sheets into ground to support the tunnel’s walls. Recent changes in construction methods led to a $500 million overrun and three years delay. This forced the tunnel’s opening back to 2027.


What if there wasn’t a tunnel? This was the direction the project was headed in the early 2010s. The process was called “relocation” because it was necessary to move the freight rail line that ran from Twin Cities and Western along the Kenilworth Corridor, which was owned by Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority. Six different studies were completed in 2009, 2010 and 2012. They concluded that relocation was better than colocation.


span style=”font weight: 400 A tunnel through the Kenilworth Corridor for colocation would be far more costly than other alternatives, produce unpredictable environment impacts, and invite continued maintenance, safety, and security problems,” was how R.L. Banks & Associates, 2010.


In 2012, the draft environmental impact statement was prepared for the county. The Federal Transit Administration also reviewed it. It concluded that the “colocation option” did not fulfill the project’s purpose or need. It required complicated and high-impact construction staging and was not feasible due to the environmental impacts.


What happened then? The auditor reviewed comments made by St. Louis Park residents and railroad officials as part of the draft EIS process objected to the relocation of freight service. These are not only interested parties. Every municipality was granted a virtual veto under state law if their wishes weren’t met. Federal law also gives railroads unprecedented power over local and state governments. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers submission was also made questioning the effects of relocation on waterways.


The Met Council commissioned a series of studies to prove that colocation was possible, which included a tunnel. In October 2013, the Met Council chose colocation as its preferred route. One significant change was the removal of two tunnels at the south end. The trains would travel on the surface at the north end, over the Kenilworth Channel, before moving below the surface.


Three factors were attributed by the legislative auditor to project delays and cost rises:


  • Uncertainty regarding the final location for freight rail

  • Construction of the tunnel

  • A concrete barrier wall was built by BNSF to seperate freight and light rail tracks


It is possible to avoid two of these three by moving rather than colocating.


This issue was brought up in lawsuits by the Lakes and Parks Alliance, which sought to stop the process. According to the suit, the Met Council had settled on a route instead of letting the environmental review dictate that decision.

John Tunheim, U.S. District Judge


John Tunheim, U.S. District Judge



was ruled against



The alliance in 2018 said that the council came close to, but didn’t cross, the line of predetermining route before environmental studies. He expressed sympathy to the Met Council, which tried to complete a project while so many entities held veto power. This “can significantly interfere” with the goals for a proper regional planning process that properly considers the environmental impacts of development.


Tunheim wrote that span style=”font weight: 400 For the council, walking this tightrope is difficult.” Tunheim wrote that the court’s task is to determine whether the council has violated federal law span>.


He concluded that it didn’t.


Tunheim wrote that the council modified the route in part due to budget pressures. “With regard to funding, the council modified route in part due to budget pressures .”


Tunheim’s ruling estimated that the project would cost $1.858 billion. It was expected to be completed by 2023. The current cost is $2.74 billion, with completion expected in 2027.

Zelle called the tunnel the “gnarliest segment” late in the year. He said that it was not just the narrow corridor. The soil conditions and building practices to work during work hours so as not to disrupt the neighborhood have been very challenging. That is partly what I believe is driving the delay. Time is money. It’s more expensive and takes .”

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