In the Spotlight

News & Features
From the ground up, and down
By Dan Olson
Minnesota Public Radio
November 20, 2001
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Light-rail officials say construction on the state's largest public works project is proceeding on schedule. And they say the $675 million Hiawatha line is within budget. Some of the most intense and visible activity is on Fifth Street in downtown Minneapolis and in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood near downtown.

Take a slideshow tour
The north entrance to the LRT tunnel at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is like akin to an archaeological dig. Take a slideshow tour of the project.
(MPR Photo/Dan Olson)

Building an electrically powered rail system from the ground up means digging up one of Minneapolis' busiest streets - Fifth - to make room for track and electrical cables.

Hiawatha Project Utility Compliance Manager Vicki Barron says the ground below Fifth is layered with utility lines that need to be relocated. "There's about a dozen of them - Xcel, Qwest, NRG and probably about a dozen different fiber-optic companies," she says.

As the line approaches the Metrodome, it will cut across a city block. The block was dug up and is being filled with an underground public parking ramp.

Hiawatha Line Project Director Ed Hunter says workers are pouring concrete to cap the ramp in preparation for building the Metrodome light-rail station. "It'll become an open pedestrian plaza, and our station basically bisects the structure," he points out.

Home base for the 26 light-rail vehicles is the shop and yard being built on a former rail yard in Minneapolis' Cedar Riverside neighborhood.

Hiawatha Line spokesman Frank Loetterle says the shop includes a giant car wash where the vehicles will be cleaned each day. "We have covered storage for all the cars we have, and we have the ability to extend the covered storage to twice the size it is now, so that if we double the fleet, we can still do it within this facility," says Loetterle.

Passengers won't hear much clickety-clack as they ride the rails. The strands of steel are being welded together in segments up to a quarter-mile long. Workers with grinders smooth the welded joints. The rails are secured to concrete ties. The ties sit on a rail bed landscaped to withstand Minnesota weather.

Home base for the 26 light-rail vehicles is the shop and yard being built on a former rail yard in Minneapolis' Cedar Riverside neighborhood.
(MPR Photo/Dan Olson)

Hiawatha Line spokesman Jack Caroon says thawing and freezing of water as seasons change causes soil to rise and fall. So, the rail bed is eight inches of frost-free aggregate.

"It's just sand that doesn't have any clay or silt in it. It's pourous so the water won't be held up in it," according to Caroon.

The Hiawatha line's most expensive segment - about $142 million - is at the airport. The two light-rail tunnels under the airport account for more than half of the cost.

A horn signals a crane is ready to unload small rail cars filled with St. Peter sandstone. The sand is coming from the front end of the tunnel boring machine.

Spokesman Frank Loetterle says the tunnelers have cut through a 40-foot layer of limestone that sits under nearly the entire Twin Cities region to get at the soft sandstone below.

"The limestone will represent the roof of the tunnel and it's a very very strong rock, and by time it gets under the runway it'll be under all that limestone," he says.

There'll be two stations light-rail stations at the airport - one at a transit center near the Lindbergh Terminal and another at the Humphrey Terminal.

The final leg of the Hiawatha Line is to the Mall of America. The Mall owners and Bloomington officials weren't sure at first how to accomodate light-rail service.

Working with the transit planners, they decided on a rail station on the east side of the mall that, Frank Loetterle says, will be connected by a covered walkway to the mall parking ramp.

Light-rail officials predict as many as 19,000 riders a day when the project is complete in 2004. The Hiawatha Line is the first leg of what planners hope will be a rail and bus system with links as far as St. Cloud to the north and Hastings to the south, west to Eden Prairie and east to White Bear Lake.

Metropolitan Council officials are counting on the rail and bus service to help slow sprawl. They want the lines to work like a magnet, attracting residents and businesses who might otherwise build beyond the outer edge of the Twin Cities metropolitan area.