Monday, May 17, 2010

Freight rail move to St. Louis Park gets more study

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In June, Hennepin County, Minn., will launch a nine-month, $200,000 study of the cost and community and environmental impacts of adding more traffic to the St. Louis Park tracks, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports.

The question of rerouting freight trains to make room for a new light-rail line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie hits home, almost literally, for Brian Zachek. Zachek's St. Louis Park house is just 30 feet from the freight tracks that could inherit the displaced trains.

It may be necessary to move them from the Kenilworth neighborhood in south Minneapolis, but shifting them to the St. Louis Park tracks that run behind his and 184 other homes -- and within 20 feet of St. Louis Park High School -- "just sounds like insanity,'' Zachek said.

In June, the county will launch a nine-month, $200,000 study of the cost and community and environmental impacts of adding more traffic to the St. Louis Park tracks, said Katie Walker, principal planner of the rail line for Hennepin County.

Kenilworth freight trains must be moved because the chosen route for the proposed light-rail line passes through a 62-foot-wide corridor between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. Occupied now by freight trains and a popular pedestrian trail, there isn't room for light rail, Walker said.

Moving the freight trains to St. Louis Park was the recommendation of a 2009 Hennepin County study that evaluated six alternatives for rerouting the traffic. That study concluded that the north-south Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern Railway tracks west of Hwy. 100 in St. Louis Park made the most sense.

While the upcoming study is set to focus just on St. Louis Park, affected residents and St. Louis Park City Council Member Sue Sanger would like further review of other options.

"The county should do a full assessment of all of the possible routes," she said, including a comparison of alternatives by the density of housing, the proximity of housing to tracks and the costs associated with mitigation. She said additional trains will bring more noise, vibration, pollution and conflicts with traffic.

Judging by current use, adding rail traffic to the MNS line would result in six to eight freight trains daily through St. Louis Park. That's up from two a day now. Walker estimates four-to-six trains pass each day through Kenilworth.

Zachek said that rail traffic behind his house is barely noticeable with two short trains a day, but the trains rumbling through Kenilworth are longer and would bring more disruption.

His family lives so close to the tracks that "if that train derailed and it was carrying something toxic we would probably be killed,'' he said.

St. Louis Park last studied the issue in 1999, when the notion of shifting freight traffic seemed distant.

The city shelved a report that said: "If at a future date, it is determined that the Kenilworth Corridor is the most feasible route for mass transit, and that freight rail and a mass transit cannot coexist in that corridor, freight rail traffic will be rerouted through St. Louis Park."

Although a light-rail route is still far from certain, planning for the $1-billion Southwest Corridor line is under way.

This month, the Metropolitan Council is set to finalize the route. The next step is to seek federal permission to begin preliminary engineering late this year or early next year. Environmental impacts will be outlined in a draft report coming in September, Walker said.

Progress on the light-rail plan has given the freight rail switch new urgency. More than 100 St. Louis Park residents attended a briefing on the issue April 29 at St. Louis Park High School.

"People were shouting questions and demanding that the county do something to help St. Louis Park," said Thom Miller, a resident who lives in the neighborhood bordering the freight line.

"Why is St. Louis Park being penalized and being abused by all this freight rail being shoved down our throats?"

Some houses are 30 feet from the tracks and some have garages 5 or 6 feet from the tracks, Miller said.

The Twin Cities & Western Railroad freight line now running through Kenilworth lost its original location along the Midtown Greenway when it was severed by the construction of Hwy. 55 through south Minneapolis in the 1990s, Walker said.

At that time, Hennepin County intended to relocate the traffic to St. Louis Park, but environmental contamination was found on the Golden Auto property where the TCW and the MNS lines were supposed to connect. Instead, the trains displaced by Hwy. 55 were sent through Kenilworth.

Between 2006 and 2008, the Golden Auto site was cleaned up and a public easement established on the property for the freight line connection.

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said the freight traffic change should be used to address long-standing noise and safety issues and make the existing freight line more acceptable.

Dorfman, who represents St. Louis Park and the Kenilworth neighborhood on the County Board, said she would prefer not to bring more freight traffic to St. Louis Park. But she sees it as a chance to "get it done right.''

Transportation issues are always tough, she said.

"I go from getting clobbered by Kenwood people because I am bringing them light rail to getting clobbered by St. Louis Park people because they don't want the freight rail,'' she said.

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