Star Trib: Southwest LRT Timeout Should Help Build Consensus

The following opinion piece by the Star Tribune Editorial Board was published in the October 16, 2013 edition of the Star Tribune:

Photo: DAVID JOLES, Star Tribune

Answers to key questions should unite region behind needed line.

Transit projects are supposed to connect a region, not divide it. But division is just what’s happening with the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail line, because of the continuing controversy over the portion of the line that would travel through the Kenilworth Corridor in Minneapolis.

Currently, the recreational corridor accommodates heavily used bike and hiking trails as well as freight rail. Before Tuesday, the Metropolitan Council seemed set on approving a plan that would have added two near-half-mile shallow tunnels north and south of the channel that connects Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles for the light-rail line.

But that plan faced fierce opposition from some citizens, as well as from Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, many members of the City Council and some in the Legislature. Their opposition put municipal consent in Minneapolis and approval from the Legislature at risk, thus jeopardizing the entire $1.55 billion project.

With no regional compromise in sight, Gov. Mark Dayton stepped in Tuesday: , ordering that a Met Council vote scheduled for Wednesday be postponed. Dayton said he wants key questions answered in hopes of building support in Minneapolis for the project. One of the issues is what impact the shallow tunnels would have on lake water and groundwater in the corridor.

Given the two remaining options being considered by the Met Council, the Star Tribune Editorial Board argued Sunday: that the shallow tunnel plan was the best choice. We also said that there could be no margin of error on the remaining environmental issues. The Chain of Lakes is too valuable, not only to Minneapolis but to the greater Twin Cities.

So it is beyond a political necessity to allay concerns about any impact: It’s necessary environmental stewardship that further study be done beyond the preliminary analysis commissioned by the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District.

A second reasonable request is to recommend a process to further engage the community with the eventual landscaping of the shallow tunnels, since nearly 1,000 trees may need to be cut down in the corridor.

Another assignment Dayton gave the Met Council was to complete an independent analysis of any other possible freight-rail reroute options. The Met Council commissioned such a study, but the consultant who was hired hastily dropped out because of a conflict of interest.

Dayton clearly believes the study must be completed to gain municipal and legislative backing, even if many officials closely associated with the project — including Met Council chair Susan Haigh, a Dayton appointee — have maintained that all reroute options have been exhausted.

But it should also be clear that any reconsideration of rerouting freight rail must not revisit the unacceptable option previously considered for St. Louis Park that would have required portions of track to be built on 22-foot berms through residential neighborhoods and business districts, near the high school football field and even through an elementary school playground, and that 32 properties be acquired. It also would have been more expensive, costing an estimated $200 million, compared with $160 million for the shallow-tunnel option.

To be sure, if freight rail could safely and unobtrusively be rerouted, the nearly 220 light-rail trains on weekdays would run at grade through Kenilworth. So resistance to light rail in the corridor is not likely to end.

And, in fact, many will continue to ask why the line would go through a less populated neighborhood than the much denser Uptown area. While Dayton did not suggest reconsideration of the selected light-rail route, the Met Council and other leaders involved should anticipate questions about why the entire project is not under review.

Ideally, Dayton would have been more involved in the debate much sooner — either directly or through Haigh. By stopping the approval process in the 11th hour, and less than a month before city elections, he put the municipal-consent decision in Minneapolis in the hands of the next mayor and City Council. Meanwhile, the clock is running on requesting federal funding for half of the project’s cost.

After the issues raised by Dayton are adequately addressed, he and those newly elected Minneapolis officials should join the Met Council, legislators and the leaders of other affected cities in seeking a solution that finally unites the region behind this vitally important Twin Cities project.