Brian Zachek’s Minnetonka Boulevard home in St. Louis Park is 30-some feet away from freight rail tracks. With a proposed reroute that would bring longer, faster trains — and more of them — through the city, Zachek is worried about staying in his home.
On Thursday night, he passionately addressed members of Kimley-Horn, a consulting group paid by Hennepin County to look at the proposed reroute. The idea is being explored because freight traffic in Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor may have to be moved to make way for the proposed Southwest Transitway light rail line.
“The future of my family depends on what you do,” Zachek said, noting his young daughter and disabled wife. “And we pay for your salary.”
This type of rhetoric has become commonplace at public meetings held the past several months to discuss the proposed reroute of Kenilworth traffic to the MN&S line in St. Louis Park. While other alternatives are being studied by the county — which has maintained that a St. Louis Park reroute has not been predetermined — the thought of increased freight traffic on tracks that run so close to the has a large number of residents concerned. On Thursday, many of them packed , donning the familiar orange buttons distributed by grassroots group Safety in the Park.
Thursday’s meeting was held to specifically address mitigation efforts that could be implemented if the reroute happens. The main point emphasized by the consultants was the possibility of creating “quiet zones” along the track, which would keep train conductors from blowing their horns unless it was an emergency. While other safety measures would be needed to offset the loss of train horns, the implementation of quiet zones would be a big help — an analysis showed that 327 homes would suffer “severe” noise impacts due to a reroute, but the quiet zones would essentially nullify these impacts.
But for residents in attendance, this wasn’t enough. They wanted serious discussion of an array of stop arms that could be installed near particularly dangerous freight and street crossings by the high school, as well as pedestrian bridges that could keep high school students away from the tracks.
Others said they want assurances that the county would be willing to purchase homes nearest the tracks, rather than allow them to devalue and become less safe. Zachek said he would “absolutely” be willing to sell, and Safety in the Park co-chair Thom Miller said everyone he has spoken with feels the same way.
Jeanne Witzig, a Kimley-Horn representative, said the group is taking the concerns of residents to heart during its analysis and will be further studying mitigation efforts. Gail Dorfman, the Hennepin County commissioner who represents St. Louis Park, said previously that if the St. Louis Park reroute is ultimately picked, she would be dedicated to making sure it’s done as safely as possible.
While these mitigation discussions went on Thursday, some are still frustrated that Kimley-Horn has not presented cost estimates for the reroute. Other alternatives that are being looked at, which include scenarios that would keep freight in Kenilworth along with light rail, have had estimates.
“We believe the county is quite purposely stalling publication of these costs so that there is no simple comparison to be made which will show that the MN&S is, by far, the most expensive re-route option,” Miller said in an e-mail previously.
The county has denied this claim. On Thursday, Witzig said cost estimates are being worked on and would be made public, but added that the consultants didn’t want to rush out numbers on such a complex issue.
The MN&S rail study is expected to be completed by late spring or early summer, at which point some clarity should emerge over what route will be chosen. However, who chooses the route and how is muddled. Dorfman said the goal is to get consensus among the players involved, which includes the city, the county, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the federal government and the impacted freight companies. But it’s unclear what happens if consensus isn’t reached, though it is known that the freight companies effectively have veto power over any proposal, as the government entities can’t dictate how they use their tracks.
For St. Louis Park City Council, this has been the frustrating part. Council members Sue Sanger and Julia Ross, who both attended Thursday’s meeting, said it is hard to deal with the issue because they don’t know exactly how much leverage the city has, or who they should be communicating with on the issue. By way of a resolution (see the attached PDF), the council said last summer that they are opposed to the reroute unless it is shown to be the only truly viable alternative.
Zachek and his family are hoping that some other alternative can be found, and that the new trains stay away from St. Louis Park.
“We care about this,” he said after Thursday’s meeting. “It affects us deeply.”