How much impact can St. Louis Park residents really have on the controversial proposal to through town? That answer is still unknown as the city prepares to hold public about the plan Wednesday and Thursday at .
These sessions are “perhaps the most important community meetings yet regarding freight rail in St. Louis Park,” as described in a recent email from the grassroots group Safety in the Park, whose members have opposed the reroute. The plan calls for moving freight traffic from Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor to St. Louis Park to make room for a regional light rail line.
“I’m looking forward to saying what I want to say to City Council,” said Jami LaPray, a Safety in the Park co-chair.
How far her thoughts and the thoughts of others go could largely depend on their focus. Mayor Jeff Jacobs said he fears the city—and, by extension, its residents—has little say over the fate of a reroute.
“I wish the city had a lot more control over that,” Jacobs said, adding that some combination of Hennepin County, state and federal officials carry a lot more weight.
Jacobs believes the city can have more sway in proposing specific mitigation measures, such as improved pedestrian track crossings and “whistle-free” zones to reduce noise.
“That is what I’m going to be pushing for really hard,” the mayor said. “That’s where I think almost everybody would be in lock-step.”
Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman echoed those sentiments, saying she wants St. Louis Park residents to speak up.
“I’ve said if we do (the reroute), we need to make it work for the community,” she said. “The only way to do that right is to get community input.”
Dorfman sounded less optimistic about whether citizens could actually unite to stop a potential reroute. Though she has backed away from calling it a “done deal,” as she did last summer, the commissioner indicated the St. Louis Park reroute appears to be the most feasible option for making regional light rail a reality.
“I think residents of St. Louis Park need to look at the big picture and look at the benefits of LRT in making that decision,” Dorfman said.
That light rail route, which would connect Minneapolis with Eden Prairie and wind through the western suburbs, is scheduled for a 2014 groundbreaking, with completion expected by 2017. Dorfman said that means a decision on a reroute needs to happen this year, so any freight rail realignments can be completed before light rail work begins.
While the St. Louis Park reroute seems most likely, other options exist. One alternative would keep freight—along with a nearby bike trail—in the Kenilworth Corridor, while also squeezing in the new light rail line. This plan, estimated to cost between $60 million and $78 million, would likely require the public purchase of a number of adjacent condos. It would also have to pass the muster of federal regulators, who generally don’t like to see commuter and commercial railways co-mingle like this for safety reasons.
By comparison, a recently released cost estimate on the St. Louis Park reroute puts the price tag at roughly $77 million, which includes some contingency funding for mitigation measures and the possible purchase of homes near the tracks.
LaPray said while she and others in the community are spending plenty of time focusing on mitigation measures, they haven’t given up the fight to stop the reroute altogether.
“I’d like to think the county would reevaluate the Kenilworth option, but at the same time, if the (St. Louis Park) decision is made, I think I can have an effect on the mitigation,” LaPray said. “I’m trying to focus on both as much as possible.”