The Southwest Light Rail Transit line could open years later than scheduled.
The Metropolitan Council had anticipated passenger service would open on the line in 2023. However, project director Jim Alexander told the St. Louis Park City Council Feb. 1, “We had 2023 for revenue service, and we don’t see 2023 happening. I think that’s reality. We’re looking years beyond that. That’s something we’re trying to sort through, but I can tell you 2023 is out of the picture.”
Project leaders announced last month that a delay would be likely due to complications in Minneapolis but had not yet ruled out an opening in 2023 entirely.
Project leaders are working on a new time table internally but still have details to work out with contractors, Alexander said.
“You’re just going to have to work with us,” he said. “We’re going to get the information out as soon as we get it. I hate to even give you a date when I’m going to have that because there’s so many details we’re working on right now.”
There will be a change to the project’s budget, he added, although he still did not know how much.
The major issues relate to soil conditions in the area of a tunnel under construction in Minneapolis that will require a different construction method than expected and a corridor protection wall between freight and light rail tracks closer to downtown that will be longer than previously anticipated.
Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle put an optimistic face on the construction process during a Feb. 3 Corridor Management Committee with local government officials along the line’s route from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
“We are in the process of being 35% complete, which is amazing,” said Zelle, who called the level of progress exciting. “We have to continue to kind of lean into it to get it done. ... I just know that we’re going to be able to handle what is probably one of the most complicated projects in the country in terms of large infrastructure.”
In highlighting other progress, Alexander said 94% of work to relocate private utilities is complete. Siemens has delivered 11 of the 27 light rail vehicles for the line.
The Met Council had planned to build a wall as a result of its negotiations with BNSF Railway in the area of Interstate 94 near the Minneapolis Farmers Market. As a result of discussions with BNSF officials, the Met Council agreed to extend the wall about a mile to the Bryn Mawr Station in Minneapolis.
Working along working freight tracks has also slowed construction, Alexander said. For example, if a crane near the tracks could threaten the safety of the freight trains, operations have to shut down.
In the Kenilworth Corridor, contractors could not use a traditional technique to install sheet piles because of the proximity to residential buildings.
“We had to be very mindful of the vibration sensitivities in this area,” Alexander said.
However, the press-in piling equipment workers used instead has not been able to adequately push the sheet piles into the ground due to boulders and the density of the soil.
“Normally, the vibratory method would be able to drive these things pretty easily,” Alexander said.
Instead, construction workers will switch techniques to build a secant wall, which involves filling a series of drilled columns with concrete that interlock and include steel beams to provide support.
In speaking with representatives of a nearby condominium association, Zelle said, “I think they’ve gained some confidence that we’re actually, in an abundance of caution, doing the right thing to not take any risk.”
Hennepin County Commissioner Debbie Goettel asked whether project leaders had considered other construction techniques besides the secant wall that might have had less of an impact on the project’s cost and schedule.
Alexander replied, “There really isn’t a lot of alternatives here, given the tight, confined space we have here.... Just given the limited space, this is really the alternative we need to go to.”
While Alexander said other types of retaining walls exist that would cost less, they would require more right-of-way to construct.
St. Louis Park Mayor Jake Spano relayed a request from his council that the Met Council reopen a trail along the light rail route that has been closed for construction.
During the City Council meeting, St. Louis Park Councilmember Rachel Harris inquired whether the Met Council would ask cities along the line to contribute more money toward the project to cover the higher costs for the changes in Minneapolis.
Alexander said the Met Council is still seeking to determine if enough contingency funding is available in the project to cover the higher costs.
Councilmember Larry Kraft said he appreciated Alexander’s explanations but observed he essentially had told them, “Don’t know how long or how much. Don’t know when we can tell you how long or how much.”
Kraft said, “Boy, you know, I’d want to know at least a date pretty soon as to when we’ll know information.”
Alexander said, “We felt we needed to come out and say something because, obviously, our tunnel work is not progressing as we had initially intended. ... There’s just two big components. We felt like we needed to start talking about it, realizing we don’t have all the answers yet, but hopefully, folks can stay patient with us and we will eventually get that out.”
Follow the Sun Sailor on Facebook at facebook.com/mnsunsailor.