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Patch Blog: Why is freight train relocation an important school issue?

As part of my promise to blog about issues affecting the schools, this week I would like to review the freight train relocation issue and its effect on schools.By now, you are probably are aware of the basic issues and I'll only quickly review some of the highlights. The proposed Southwest LRT is slated to run on tracks through the Kenilworth Neighborhood east of Cedar Lake in Minneapolis. It was originally thought by Hennepin County that the freight trains currently running on these tracks needed to go on a different route, and the leading candidate for the alternative route included the tracks currently going by the High School. There were several issues with this idea, including the fact this route guess through a narrow corridor in the backyards of many residents, and the sudden elevation change and tight curves in the original redesign proposal made even the railroad say it was unacceptably dangerous and susceptible to derailment. Noise concerns were dismissed. The only major mitigation given much discussion was a "whistle-free zone", which is actually something that should not even be considered in the curve going around the high-school. Currently on a typical day only two short trains, 10-25 cars each, go by the high school. If the other freight trains were relocated from Kenilworth, 3 or 4 longer trains, 60-132 cars each, would be added. These longer trains would need to go by at 25 mph (because of the need to get up the steep grade, and the need to not block intersections for excessive time periods), compared with the shorter train's current speed of about 10 mph. At 25 mph the longer trains need up to a mile to stop. There would be potential for increased train traffic beyond these numbers in the future.

Through the tireless work of neighborhood advocates, notably the group Safety in the Park, the idea of finding a way to keep the freight trains where they are and "co-locate" the freight trains alongside the light rail was finally seriously considered. This ultimately led to the Metropolitan Council (who have essentially taken over management of the project from Hennepin County) to propose 8 new possible resolutions of what to do on the freight issue. Three of the proposals were preferred by the staff, the "shallow tunnel" and the "deep tunnel" proposals that leave the freight trains in Kenilworth, and one option that still relocates the freight trains to St. Louis Park, although on a slightly different alignment from where the tracks are today. To make the route straighter and avoid sudden grade changes, many homes and businesses would need to be taken, and the trains would be up on a "berm" which allows for a more gradual elevation change and would be 20 feet high at its tallest. The berm would create a wall of separation between our neighborhoods and be an aesthetic eyesore.

There are many aspects of this new plan that are particularly worrisome for the school system. One is that the new route would go right through the PSI playground, and there is no real good idea where the playground could be relocated. The trains would be going by right next to the high school stadium, and would disrupt events there. PSI playground aside, the trains run very close to the PSI/Central building itself and very close to the High School, and the noise disruption would be magnified by the fact the trains are up so high. The chance of a derailment may be lessened by a straighter route, but the consequences of a derailment are potentially worse if the train rolls down a 20 foot berm, and if the trains run so close to school facilities. One particularly irksome aspect of the process is that the city would be asked to give municipal consent to the "location" of the re-route now, but a detailed analysis of the noise effects of the new route (which will probably be vastly different from the original proposal because the "location" is now 20 feet above the ground on one stretch) would not be completed until later with an environmental assessment. In case anyone is wondering, I don't believe the city council would conceivably give municipal consent at any rate, but lack of municipal consent is apparently not an absolute veto over the project.

After community outcry, it appeared to many observers that relocation in St. Louis Park was effectively dead, and would be declared officially dead soon. There are some reasons, though, to remain vigilant, especially after some recent quotes from some elected officials. The Met Council was supposed to make a "decision" on August 28th, whatever making a decision meant, though that has been postponed slightly now. Even if they had voted for moving a single co-location option forward, keeping the freight trains in Kenilworth, the St. Louis Park relocation option could easily have been brought back at any time. It could have been brought back at any time because apparently all options are still going to have an environmental review. Presumably any option that passes muster could still be swapped back in at any point at least in the near future. Perhaps even more troubling is that the Met Council has postponed a decision, apparently because it has heard negative comments about the cost of the Kenilworth options (more so for the more expensive deep tunnel option preferred by the Kenilworth residents). Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin was quoted as saying "that a group of metro counties that fund transit projects is worried that the rising costs of the Southwest project will deprive other regional transit projects of funding", and that "the planners should reconsider the original plan for routing the freight in St. Louis Park and try to negotiate a deal with the railroad". What, bribe the railroad to accept a design the railroad said was unsafe?It is tough to keep up with a process that sometimes resembles a zoo. Some good resources are the city's website,, and the website for Safety in the Park, We all should be contacting the Met Council to tell them to take this ludicrous plan for relocating the trains in St. Louis Park off the table.


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