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Key panel OKs tunnels for SW light-rail, Met Council vote next

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The plan to bring a light-rail train to the southwest metro suburbs continues to lurch along the track, with a key panel on Wednesday recommending a controversial "shallow tunnel" route plan.

The advisory panel's action sets up a final Metropolitan Council vote next week, with city council votes to follow.

The panel is a key advisory board to the Metropolitan Council, which is overseeing the massive plan to build a $1.6 billion train route linking downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. The 15-mile, 17-stop Southwest Corridor light-rail aims to serve up to 30,000 riders a day and has been called the biggest transit project in metro history.

Perhaps the most controversial issue in the ambitious plan has been where best to route the trains. The plan endorsed Wednesday would sink the trains into shallow 1.4-mile tunnels that would run through the scenic Kenilworth Corridor of Minneapolis, with freight continuing to run on existing tracks alongside the new transit trains.

The tunnels would be dug from above and covered, and the work would mean removing about 1,000 trees and relocating the bike trails for as much as two years, the Star Tribune reports.

Another plan would have rerouted the freight trains through St. Louis Park to make way for the new trains. St. Louis Park residents strongly opposed that plan.

But the shallow tunnel plan has its critics, too, including Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, the lone "no" vote on Wednesday, and council member and mayoral candidate Betsy Hodges.

That's a potential problem for the plan because if the Met Council approves it, it would be subject to council votes in several cities, including Minneapolis.

MPR reports that Met Council chairwoman Susan Haigh said the shallow tunnels were the best option because they preserve the Kenilworth Corridor’s green space and bike trails – and the plan is still $40 million cheaper than the $200 million rerouting of freight through St. Louis Park.

KSTP notes that interested Minneapolis residents can attend an open house on the issue Oct. 10 from 5:30 to7:30 p.m. at the Kenwood Community Center.

Project planners want to start construction in 2015. Delays would add about $50 million a year to the project price tag, they say.

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