The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board on Jan. 19 denied a permit for more time to close a parkway necessary for the Metropolitan Council to stage equipment to build a tunnel for the Southwest light rail project.
Recently renamed the Green Line Extension project, it extends its namesake from Target Field Station in Downtown Minneapolis to an existing transit station in Eden Prairie 14.5 miles away. The light rail line will pass through St. Louis Park, Hopkins, and southeastern Minnetonka on 29 bridges and through two tunnels. The Green Line Extension was originally scheduled to be completed later this year and ready for service next year. Now, with a settlement reached between the Met Council and the contractor passed by the full council on Wednesday, the project won’t be complete until June 2025 at the earliest, and opening day won’t be until 2027.
Convening hours before the Met Council ratified the agreement, DFL and GOP members of the Legislative Commission on Metropolitan Government chastised the Met Council’s handling of the project. “Why wouldn't we just do a bus rapid transit and why did we decide to compete [bus rapid transit] with the Southwest light rail … that will get people from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis, similar destinations for significantly less and 30 minutes faster?” asked Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, at the meeting.
It’s possible we might have been using Southwest light rail today had the Met Council chosen an alignment following Nicollet Avenue and the Midtown Greenway. But it balked at the close to $2.5 billion estimated cost. The corridor also has its own sets of challenges: immigrant businesses that may be displaced because of construction, similar to how businesses were closed because of subway construction in New York City, as well as the fact that much of the proposed corridor was identified in a 2020 Freshwater Society study as being susceptible to sinkholes.
So project managers opted for the Kenilworth route. But after faltering attempts to relocate the freight line, which transports agricultural goods across western Minnesota, the Met Council planned for a light rail tunnel so it could coexist with freight rail and a bike trail on a narrow corridor between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.
The tunnel is being built using a cut-and-cover method, where earth is dug up, and temporary walls are driven into the soil to allow crews to ultimately build the actual tunnel. The Met Council planned to use metal sheets to create the temporary wall, but they pivoted to secant walls — overlapping piles of reinforced concrete — after learning nearby soils were settling. Driving the walls in is taking longer than anticipated, due to the density of the soil.
The secant wall needs to be built before the tunnel can be built. This contributed to the project’s $2.4 billion cost, a figure that will increase to close to $2.76 billion in the coming months as they renegotiate systems installation and testing contracts, which are delayed.
Because of the challenges building the tunnel, which will be the last portion of the project to be complete when construction wraps in 2025, the Met Council sought to extend an already-planned closure of Cedar Lake Parkway. The Met Council has approval to shut the parkway down for 180 days, but are asking for 298 days. The Park Board needs their elected board to approve closures longer than 180 days.
District 4 Park Board member Elizabeth Shaffer wants the Met Council to pay the Park Board for the impacts the project will have on the beach, and wants to use this permitting opportunity as leverage.
“Basically, because all of the traffic around the lake there will be routed local traffic only,” Schaffer said. “And then all of the construction equipment, because it's so narrow there, will be placed on Cedar Lake Parkway, like an encroachment issue.” Shaffer said she thinks the Met Council could work with the Park Board to address water quality issues that have plagued Cedar Lake for the last two years, which has been attributed to climate change and a backed up sewer.
Met Council’s Green Line Extension Project Manager Jim Alexander alleged at the Jan. 19 Park Board meeting that the payment Shaffer proposed goes against Park Board policy. "I'm going to be struggling with my funding partners, particularly the [Federal Transit Administration], to demonstrate that I can pay for something that’s not enforceable," said Alexander. He said he has to justify every expense to the federal government and Hennepin County. A Metro Transit spokesperson declined to elaborate on his comments.
At the meeting, Park Board staff said the opportunity for discussions around mitigation and community benefits appear to have sailed, as the Met Council pledged in their federal environmental planning documents several mitigation measures, including building context-sensitive walls and designating bike trail detours around construction.
In a deal with the Park Board finalized when the Met Council finalized its alignment, the Met Council plans to widen the choke point for people who bike and walk on Cedar Lake Parkway, just before it crosses the Kenilworth corridor to the lake.
The Met Council, in addition to overseeing transportation, also funds the region’s parks through a variety of grant programs that use an array of formulas that account for how much the park system is used, how much it spends on operations and maintenance, and how big the system is to inform its spending decisions. For example, it allocates operations and maintenance funding on a weighted formula: 40% on how much the park system is used, 40% on how much the system spends on operations and maintenance, and 20% on how big the system is. For 2021, the Park Board received $2.4 million.
When asked whether or not the Met Council allocates enough to the Park Board, Shaffer, while offering a caveat that she is two weeks into her new role, said, “I don't think we do… and that's not just the Met Council’s fault, either.” Chair Meg Forney says the decision has “absolutely nothing” to do with the amount of funding it gets from the Met Council.
The closure of Cedar Lake Parkway is anticipated to begin as soon as February 7. People who drive will be detoured, while people who bike and walk will still be able to get through on a pathway. Meanwhile, Park Board staff are preparing recommendations for the Met Council to consider as part of the board’s desire for the agency to compensate them. If neither side comes to a resolution and the Met Council chooses to proceed with commandeering Cedar Lake Parkway for all 298 days, they could face fines of up to $12,000 per day, which could ultimately be borne by Hennepin County as all federal funding for the project is spoken for and the Met Council has limited contingency funds available for the project.