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Minneapolis, Met Council reach tentative deal on Southwest light rail

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The City of Minneapolis and the Metropolitan Council have come to a tentative agreement that could allow the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit project to move forward.

The Southwest light rail line, which would run from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, has been the center of much debate – mainly over where the tracks would be located.

The original plan had the light rail line running through two separate tunnels in the wealthy Kenilworth neighborhood, one on each side of the channel between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. The new agreement brings the section of the tracks on the north side of the channel above ground.

Residents and the City of Minneapolis have expressed concerns about where the the tracks would travel. But after months of negotiation and the help of a mediator, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh announced in a news release Tuesday a tentative agreement that redesigns the Minneapolis portion of the rail line.

Both parties still need to formally approve the deal.

The tentative deal

The new deal changes a controversial plan to bury the light rail in shallow tunnels between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

It would eliminate this north tunnel, which was originally added into the plans after Minneapolis lost a battle to reroute freight traffic from the Kenilworth corridor to St. Louis Park. Kenilworth residents objected to having the light rail and freight trains run side-by-side through their backyards between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

The Star Tribune has a map of the original plan, which details where the tunnels and freight lines would go.

Hodges says although the city had hoped freight traffic was going to be removed, the tentative deal could have been worse, "given the constraints we face, this is the most responsible way to get the project built," according to the release.

“I expect that and understand why residents along the Kenilworth corridor will be disappointed, but the greater good demands that we seek a path for Southwest LRT to move forward,” Hodges added.

Removing the north tunnel does save the project money. It reduces the cost by $30 million, from $1.683 billion to $1.653 billion, the release says. The new projected price tag is still significantly higher than the originally projected price.

Some of that money will go to address the city's concerns about noise caused by freight and light rail traffic. The money will also add city-requested pedestrian access and landscaping, MPR News reports.

Eliminating the tunnel also allows planners to add back the 21st Street Station, which was removed from plans so there was room to build the north tunnel, the release says. Adding the station back gives Minneapolis residents more access to the light rail.

In a second memorandum, the Met Council has agreed to work with Minneapolis and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority to make sure the Kenilworth freight corridor remains in public ownership – this decreases the chance that more freight trains will run through the area, the release says.

What's next?

There's still a lot left to settle before ground can be broken on the already-delayed light rail project. All the cities along the 15-mile route are required to approve the project before it gets the go-ahead.

All but one of those cities have until July 14 to vote on the plan, Minneapolis being the exception. That city gets more time because the light rail line's proposed route has changed as a result of the tentative agreement.

Minnetonka and Hopkins have already approved the project, while St. Louis Park was expected to approve it Monday night, but delayed taking action until next week. Eden Prairie also plans to vote next week, WCCO reports.

Residents in Minneapolis won't have to wait to express their views on the tentative plan. There's a public meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m., MPR News says.

MPR News notes that half of the budget for the project will come through grants from the federal government – a competitive process that is only becoming more so, as other cities around the country seek to improve public transportation. The longer the Southwest Light Rail project gets delayed, the harder it will be to get those grants, the station says.

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