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Pricey tunnel to blame in Southwest Light Rail Transit delays, cost overruns

A decision in the early 2010s to put part of the Southwest Light Rail Transit project underground is the likely inflection point where financial gaps and construction delays began to plague the project.

Charlie Zelle

Metropolitan Council

Charlie Zelle

A tunnel squeezed between a condo tower and a village of townhomes is now the leading cause of cost overruns that has driven a half-billion-dollar hole in the budget. Construction problems and completion delays can also be laid at the feet of the tunnel, what Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle has dubbed “the gnarliest segment of this whole, very complicated project.”

But for the tunnel, the SWLRT project might have already been delivered, nearly on time and nearly on budget. But for the tunnel, paying passengers might be riding already purchased rail cars. But for the tunnel, angry legislators from both parties might not be awaiting more reports from the Office of the Legislative Auditor. 

The cursed part of the now-$2.74 billion extension of the current Green Line is a tunnel that makes up just 2,870 feet of the 14.5 mile route from Target Field to Eden Prairie. 

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The decision to build a tunnel under the corridor between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles may now be considered water under the bridge – an irreversible decision on the 64 percent completed project. But it is expected to feature prominently in subsequent auditor reports due next year as the examination moves from setting out the facts of the blown budget and the missed timeline to questions of why and who.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein

State Rep. Frank Hornstein

During a meeting of the Legislative Audit Commission Sept. 8, House Transportation Committee Chair Frank Hornstein noticed something in the first report that troubled him but didn’t surprise him. In laying out the various environmental and engineering studies that preceded the final decision on the route, the legislative auditor showed a stark change of direction between 2009 and early 2014.

The Minneapolis DFLer noted how all of the studies prior to 2012 strongly supported the option known as relocation, describing the movement of existing freight lines out of the corridor to allow light rail and a bike trail use of the space on the surface. After 2012, the studies all pointed to an option known as colocation which put all modes in the same space with light rail moving beneath the surface as a pinch point on the southern end of the corridor. The difference appeared because the city of St. Louis Park and the Twin Cities and Western Railroad opposed moving freight lines.

Selected colocation design for the Kenilworth Corridor “pinch point” along the Southwest LRT route.

Source: Corridor Management Committee, “Corridor Management Committee Meeting,” (slide deck, Metropolitan Council, St. Paul, April 2, 2014), 10

Selected colocation design for the Kenilworth Corridor “pinch point” along the Southwest LRT route.

“It appears to me … that this was really a political decision and not a technical one,” Hornstein said. Even one study conducted by an independent consultant found the other plan, one that avoided a need for a tunnel, was feasible.

“We knew this was happening,” Hornstein said, “but to have it laid out in that chronological order and you could see so clearly the advocacy from the railroad and the city of St. Louis Park in moving this into Kenilworth despite a lot of previously recognized technical issues.

“That’s coming home to roost now because that was anticipated in the 2010-2012 timeframe,” he said. Hornstein, who preferred a route that used Nicollet Mall and the Greenway rather than the existing rail line, said he had no question that the project would be completed by now had relocation been the choice. 

The tunnel is being squeezed into a narrow corridor as a way to accommodate three transportation systems – light rail in the tunnel and freight rail and a popular pedestrian/bike trail on the surface. A plan to drive steel sheets into the ground to support the walls of the tunnel ran into problems when boulders were discovered during construction. Changing construction methods most recently caused a $500 million cost overrun and a three-year delay, pushing back opening to 2027.

But what if no tunnel was needed? That is where the project was heading in the early 2010s. Every study pointed the process toward what was dubbed “relocation” to describe the need to move a freight rail line run by Twin Cities and Western out of the Kenilworth Corridor that was owned by the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority. Completed in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, six different studies concluded that relocation – not colocation – was the way to go.

“A tunnel through the Kenilworth Corridor to allow colocation would be vastly more expensive than other available alternatives, produce unpredictable environmental impacts; and invite continuing maintenance, safety and security problems,” is how the auditor summarized a study by R.L. Banks & Associates in 2010.

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The draft environmental impact statement for the county and the Federal Transit Administration in 2012 concluded that – again as summarized by the audit – the “colocation alternative did not meet the project’s purpose and need, required complex and high impact construction staging, and was not a practicable alternative due to the associated environmental impacts.”

So what happened? According to the auditor’s review, comments that came in as part of the draft EIS process from St. Louis Park and the railroad objected to relocation of the freight service. These are not just any interested parties. State law gave every municipality a virtual  veto of the project unless their wishes were met. And federal law gives railroads extraordinary power over state and local governments. There was also a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers submission questioning the impact of relocation on waterways.

A series of new studies commissioned by the Met Council found that colocation, including a tunnel, was feasible and in October of 2013 the Met Council adopted the colocation option as the route of choice. The one significant change was to move from two tunnels to just one at the south end of the corridor. Trains would travel at the surface in the north end and over the Kenilworth Channel before moving beneath the surface.

The legislative auditor assigned three factors to the project’s delays and cost increases: 

  • Uncertainty about the final location of freight rail
  • The construction of the tunnel 
  • The BNSF-forced construction of a concrete barrier wall to separate freight and light rail tracks

Two of the three might have been avoided with relocation rather than colocation.

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The issue came up in subsequent lawsuits brought by a coalition called the Lakes and Parks Alliance to challenge the process. The suit claimed that contrary to state law, the Met Council had already settled on a route rather than allow the environmental review guide that decision. 

U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim

U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim

U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim ruled against the alliance in 2018, saying the council got close to but didn’t cross the line of predetermining the route prior to environmental studies. He even expressed some sympathy for the Met Council which was trying to finish a project when so many entities had veto power over decisions, something he noted “can significantly interfere with the goals of a proper regional planning process that appropriately considers the environmental impact of development.”

“For the council, walking that tightrope is difficult,” Tunheim wrote. “The court’s task here, however, is not to consider the wisdom of the council’s decisions and deals, but rather, is limited to deciding whether the council violated federal law.”

It didn’t, he concluded.

“When faced with financial pressures and the project not obtaining municipal consent, the council was willing to change the proposed route to advance their funding and municipal-consent goals,” Tunheim wrote. “With respect to funding, the council modified the route, in part, due to budget pressures.”

At the time of Tunheim’s ruling, the project had an estimated cost of $1.858 billion and was to be completed in 2023. It is now $2.74 billion with completion hoped for in 2027.

In calling the tunnel “the gnarliest segment” late last year, Zelle said, “It’s not just the tight, narrow corridor, but the soil conditions, and the building practices of working during work hours to not disrupt the neighborhood has been really challenging. And I think that is driving in part the delay, and time is money. So, it’s more cost and more time.”

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