Unanswered Questions May Force A ‘No’ Vote On Southwest LRT

The following article by Barbara Johnson and Robert Lilligren was published on the StarTribune’s Opinion Page in the October 9, 2013 issue:

Unanswered questions may force a ‘no’ vote on Southwest LRT

That’s why we, as leaders of the City Council, may oppose the Southwest Light Rail project.


Minneapolis has long opposed co-location of light and heavy rail in the city’s Kenilworth corridor, now home to a popular commuter and recreational bike trail.

Photo: Courtney Perry – Special to the Star Tribune

The city of Minneapolis is the most vocal supporter of public transit in our state, including the Southwest Light Rail line. But we may vote no on the project in a few weeks, because of the way freight rail in the corridor was seriously mishandled. The process that brought us the current plan has been flawed, and now we’re being asked to vote on something with significant unanswered questions.

You wouldn’t know it by how quickly plans are now changing, but the Met Council — and before that Hennepin County — have been preparing for Southwest LRT for quite some time.

Back in the 1980s, the Kenilworth corridor, which at the time was home to a seldom-used freight rail line and not much else, was purchased by the county for potential transit use. That land now includes a busy bikeway, serving thousands of commuters and recreational bicyclists who depend on it to get to and from downtown.

In the late 1990s, the county agreed to let the railroad use the corridor for freight on a temporary basis. But we were assured that once LRT came through, the temporary freight rail line would move for good. We believed the promises.

As to where that freight line would go, we were told it would be redirected to an existing line that runs parallel to Highway 100. Again, we believed the promises.

We’ve been clear all along that relocating the freight line was a core condition for our approval of Southwest LRT. Without relocation, there’s simply not enough space at certain points to add light rail. Just last December, when we were asked to weigh in on the draft environmental impact statement, we stated again that if LRT was coming to Kenilworth, the temporary freight rail line had to leave.

Now, at the 11th hour, we will be handed a proposal where light rail and the freight rail are both packed into the Kenilworth corridor using shallow tunnels. We’re told the deal Hennepin County made with St. Louis Park to relocate freight is not legally binding. We have major questions that so far have been left unanswered.

What short- and long-term impacts will the tunnels have on our regional trails, our tree canopy and the hundreds of thousands of people and visitors who use them every year? How will this impact our lakes and their fragile ecosystems? Are shallow tunnels really more feasible than moving freight rail? Now that the price tag exceeds $1.5 billion, should we revisit earlier alignments that were rejected due to cost?

These are valid, logical questions. But we’re being asked to make a thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision before we have any answers.

On Sept. 4, the Metropolitan Council assured us that there would be an in-depth study on relocating the freight rail line. To date there has been no study, and we still don’t have our answers.

It’s hardly a stretch to think that this project could have a lasting impact on our chain of lakes and the regional park system that folks from all around Minnesota enjoy. In North Minneapolis a highway project in Robbinsdale may have caused the water level in Ryan Lake to drop. Big construction projects can easily have unintended consequences, and there’s no room for error when it comes to our chain of lakes, the most visited regional park in all of Minnesota.

Decisions made about the future light-rail line therefore matter to everyone, not just Minneapolis. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. We’re expected to vote on the current plan by the year’s end — and get our questions answered after the project is a done deal. In the interests of everyone, including future generations who will use our parks, our trails and hopefully someday this LRT line, the Metropolitan Council should complete the freight rail relocation study that was promised. And we should re-examine alternatives in light of the new budget.

This is a 100-year decision. We must get it right.

Barbara Johnson is president and Robert Lilligren is vice president of the Minneapolis City Council.