The following article by Pat Doyle was published in the October 23 issue of the Star Tribune:
Dayton urges more citizen input in Southwest light-rail line
–Yet Dayton is still “strongly supportive” of the Southwest Corridor transit project
Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday called for greater “citizen participation” in shaping the Southwest Corridor light-rail line, the biggest transit project in the Twin Cities.
While saying he is “strongly supportive” of the project, Dayton said he hoped to address concerns of “people who felt they weren’t listened to the last time” a series of public meetings were held. He offered no details on how to do it.
Alluding to the project’s disputed history of plans and promises over more than a decade, Dayton said, “I deeply regret that the process has come to this point.”
Dayton last week endorsed a delay of up to 90 days for approving the line so additional studies could be done on its environmental impact and to explore alternatives to digging two light-rail tunnels.
He said Tuesday that the delay would give planners time to allay opposition in Minneapolis that could torpedo the project.
Minneapolis officials say that the impact of the tunnels on nearby lakes in the Kenilworth recreational corridor hasn’t been determined and that planners should take another look at moving freight train traffic out of the area to make room for the light rail. And nearby residents object to the presence of the light-rail line where it would emerge from the tunnels to cross a channel between the lakes.
The line, which would run from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, is estimated to cost $1.55 billion.
Dayton noted that the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project, must eventually seek the consent of all five cities along the future route and that Minneapolis officials critical of the plan could threaten it.
“We got to find a way we can accommodate those concerns” if possible, Dayton said.
The governor made his remarks during a news conference Tuesday at the Capitol after a closed-door meeting with legislators and suburban officials, including some from St. Louis Park who worry that the additional studies could produce a light-rail plan that reroutes freight train traffic into their suburb over the opposition of some residents.
The meeting was arranged after St. Louis Park Mayor Jeffrey Jacobs wrote Dayton last week to protest an earlier meeting in which the governor supported Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak in requesting more study before approving the Southwest project. Jacobs complained that St. Louis Park wasn’t invited to that meeting and said freight reroute possibilities had been thoroughly studied and rejected.
St. Louis Park City Council Member Jake Spano said after the meeting that “there was a lot of discussion about the need for openness and transparency in the process, and that having that would be critical to getting public buy-in.”
Dayton didn’t speculate on the likelihood that additional study would produce a significantly different option than the tunnel plan now under consideration. An option for rerouting freight onto two-story berms in St. Louis Park was rejected by metro leaders earlier this month in favor of the Minneapolis tunnels, with only Rybak dissenting. Dayton press secretary Matt Swenson has said the berm option will be excluded from new studies, but other possible reroutes through St. Louis Park could still be reviewed.
The governor said he had no indication that the delay would risk federal funding of the project.
‘A CHANCE TO COMMENT’
Dayton also didn’t elaborate on how citizen participation would be expanded during the next few months. He acknowledged that citizens, business groups and elected leaders from the affected communities held numerous meetings last summer to discuss plans for the Southwest line. Hundreds of people attended.
But Dayton said he heard complaints that light-rail planners had a “tendency … to come forward with decisions and then have public meetings about the decisions rather than — before the decisions were made — have a chance for people to express their views.
“We need to put together a process by which citizens can feel their questions are going to be answered and they’ll have a chance to comment before final decisions are made,” he said.
Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, who attended the Tuesday meeting, said that Dayton expressed support for the project and that he is “trying to figure out a way to push it through to completion.”
“He believes in the project,” Hovland said, “but is also sensitive to the issues in Minneapolis and wants to maximize the chances of municipal consent.”