The massive new bridge that rises from Southwest Station in Eden Prairie and then soars over Prairie Center Drive is arguably the most commanding structure of the $2 billion, 14.5-mile-long Southwest Light Rail Project.
Continuing work on the span during 2020 however, was only a fraction of the project’s robust progress in Eden Prairie during a year when covid protocols were slowing up most everything else.
During an in-person, September 15 report to the City Council. Eden Prairie Public Works Director Robert Ellis branded 2020 “the big year” for SWLRT. Wearing a mask, Ellis noted that 28 construction cranes had been brought in to build three bridges, four LRT stations, a parking ramp, and a train tunnel.
Earth movers and platoons of hard hat workers had carved out alignments for tracks that would be laid between Costco and Bachman’s east to Flying Cloud Drive then north to bridge work over Valley View Road and Nine Mile Creek and into the Golden Triangle with its office parks and mostly empty parking lots.
By mid-December, most of the bridge piers over Highway 212 and Shady Oak Road had been completed. A stretch of Highway 62 squeezed by orange traffic barrels was shifted back to a northerly alignment into Minnetonka, so that tunneling work coud resume on the Eden Prairie side.
When you think about it,” said Ellis at the September 15 council meeting, “that will never happen in this community again. That’s how massive this project was.”
Ellis acknowledged the project’s interruptions to traffic flow and business. But, he also echoed a decade of studies, surveys, engineering reports and meetings with planners and citizen, business and municipal stakeholders and scores of public hearings: When light rail begins carrying passengers in 2023, it will complement Eden Prairie’s suite of bus transit, trail and highway systems.
Said Ellis, “We know it takes a mix of all those to be competitive regionally, nationally, even globally.”
The day before, on September 14, 2020, the Federal Transit Administration had finally awarded the project a long-anticipated $929.4-million-dollar grant. The funding covers nearly half the cost of a project that connects communities in Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Hopkins, St. Louis Park and Minneapolis.
At the September 15 meeting Mayor Ron Case thanked former Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens, city staff and others for years of work on the sometimes-controversial project. The Mayor’s figurative bouquets were met with applause.
Some Eden Prairie residents remain wary
Had they been at City Hall that night, Mike Miller, John Pullis and Babar Khan would have likely joined the applause for the project and its proponents. However, during the year of detours and slow-moving traffic along Prairie Center, Technology and Flying Cloud Drives each preferred and still prefers alternate routes to Eden Prairie Mall and its satellite clusters of stores, restaurants and services.
Khan, a consultant in quality management, dislikes the traffic jams and polluting exhaust. Miller, a retired pastor, remains apprehensive about the Prairie Center Drive bridge.
“I hold my breath and hope some construction equipment doesn’t fall or tip over,” he wrote to EPLN. “I assume safety protocols are in place and being adhered to, but it just feels scary.” Miller still prefers Mitchell Road and Anderson Lakes Parkway.
Pullis, a chef-level food, nutrition and health educator with a high-end grocery, avoids driving or bicycling in the area of the SWLRT construction. As he puts it, “Covid has reduced traffic overall so it’s not that big an inconvenience…. But getting to Baker’s Ribs and Popeye’s has been nearly impossible.”
Daily road travel expected to be easier in 2021
“There may be a little bit of pain in 2021 as they finish some of those major components,” predicted Ellis during September’s meeting. Ellis noted that track work along an alignment that is mostly behind businesses and in vacant right-of-ways will have less impact.
In a late December email letter respodning to a few EPLN questions, SWLRT outreach coordinator James Mockovciak wrote ‘For the most part, the worst is now behind us’.
“We did meet a few construction milestones this year” according to Mockovciak, and “most people would be relieved to know that the disturbing noise and vibration associated with the bridge piling in Eden Prairie is nearly over.”
Bird watcher Lisa Rolf is certainly relieved. Rolf, an attorney, regularly photographs pelicans, Trumpeter swans and warblers in Purgatory Creek Park. Early last spring, she could no longer spot a pair of bald eagles that regularly roosted on the roof edge of the office building at 575 Prairie Center Drive.
“The eagles would sit on the corner … and look over the marsh,” says Rolf. “But when they were pounding with those loud pile drivers, the eagles wouldn’t sit on the corner, they didn’t like having those cranes right next to their perch.” They disappeared, but in early June, Rolf said that at least one of the eagles had returned to the area.
Shoppers and diners are also returning to comfortable haunts. Now reopened are Eden Road (renamed Town Center Place), the new Technology Drive / Flying Cloud Drive intersection and the Viking Road access to Residence Inn and Comfort Inn. That access crosses the alignment where rails will be laid along the north edge of Flying Cloud Drive.
Also West 70th Street in the Golden Triangle has been reopened for the winter. With fewer traffic barrels, detours and Governor Walz’ recent order to re-open bowling centers, restaurants, bars and theaters, life near the light rail project should return to near normal.
SWLRT: a 2020 work-in-progress album
Southwest Station will remain a busy construction zone through winter. However, elsewhere along Eden Prairie’s 3.5 mile, zig-zag alignment, most other work sites will be quiet until spring.
Below are work-in-progress views of the massive nature of Eden Prairie’s share of Southwest Light Rail in 2020.
Note: EPLN reporter Jeff Strate served on the SWLRT Community Advisory Committee as an at-large member, February 2015 – February 2017.