Ahh, railroad buildin’ was so much easier in the “good ol’ days”… The Empire Builder looked at the profit potential of various routes, picked some cities or places that weren’t even cities yet to connect, and turned loose the surveyors and builders. A year or two later we had a railroad, and if your town got bypassed, you just moved your town to where the railroad went. Really. How times have changed… We’re in the umpteenth year of the Minneapolis area light rail project known as the Southwest Light Rail Line, cleverly disguised as a continuing soap opera. Here’s a map:


Yea, I know, this should be simple.

First, a backgrounder: Most of the route, from Shady Oak Station to downtown, follows the right of way of an old Minneapolis & St.Louis rail line that was abandoned three decades ago. Thinking ahead, Hennepin County bought the right of way and laid down a bike trail as a temporary use while they sought funding to build a light rail line. Then MNDot cut off Twin Cities & Western’s connection to most of the rest of the railroad world when they upgraded MN 55 to near freeway status a few miles east, so a bit over a mile of track was reinstalled in the right of way as a temporary measure between where West Lake Station will go and the BNSF line near planned Penn Station. In the meantime, a bunch of pricy townhouses and such sprouted along those reinstalled tracks.

Come the 21st century and prospects for funding improved, so planning began. After months of public hearings and such where everyone and their brother was given opportunity to offer their opinion, the planners and engineers looked at all the options and picked the best, which you see on the map above. As expected, it’s a compromise, that tries to deliver the most good transit to the most people. And some folks went away mad, especially some residents of a southwest Minneapolis upmarket neighborhood referred to a “Yuptown.” They demanded that the tracks and trains go right through their neighborhood, but the engineers said building through that populated and congested ‘hood was a financial deal breaker.

So it’s been over 3 years since the route was finalized, and they oughta be layin’ tracks and buyin’ trains by now. But seems like every group involved- the several cities, even Twin Cities & Western’s joke of a railroad, has veto power. So St.Louis Park, where the TC&W trains were going to be rerouted to by installing a couple short simple connecting tracks, has vetoed that. Seeing a free upgrade to their dilapidated tracks, TC&W has demanded a fancy flyover that will allow their trains to take those turnouts to BNSF at speeds their aged (Cat repowered GP20s) locomotives could only dream of. The Metropolitan Council, lead agency on the line, then considered letting TC&W stay on their temporary connection for another century or so… But the right of way is kind of narrow there, and a freight track, two light rail paths, and the aforementioned bike trail will never fit between the aforementioned pricy townhouses. So the ever politically astute Met Council suggests putting the light rail tracks through a tunnel, with the bike trail and TC&W tracks atop, at an increased cost of a mere hundred million or so. Problem is, the trackbed don’t look to be even ten feet above two neighboring lakes, and the floor of a tunnel tall enough to fit light rail will be at least twenty feet down. Minneapolis, already smarting from a built below lake level building basement that was dumping millions of gallons of water from it’s leaking basement into one of those lakes, seems ready to veto that. And remember those bicyclists? Shoulda never built them a trail… Despite parallel parklands with plenty of places to reroute, the cyclists refuse to give up their not all that scenic trail. And the Uptown yuppies? They’re using these multiple disputes to try to reroute the tracks back through their ‘hood, if not derail the whole project. Greedy they be, too… They’re slated to get streetcar lines down the same 29th Street and Nicollet Avenue routes they wanted light rail on!

Now a few parties have tried to lend some sanity to this madness- For example, the United Transportation Union proposed an alternate route that would have satisfied TC&W’s objections, but of course, TC&W objected to that… Maybe if we promised to reinstall the signalling system they ripped out, turning their tracks into “dark territory”, too? I and a few other local writers have suggested that TC&W use the light rail tracks at night when Light Rail don’t run, but I imagine the Met Council don’t want to share tracks with those dirty freight trains, and TC&W don’t wanna associate with “nonsense” like Light Rail.

So with what seems like a half dozen parties ready with their veto stamps, seems like Southwest Light Rail ain’t goin’ nowhere. James J. Hill, you wanna come down and get our railroad built?