Bicyclists say Southwest light-rail plan ‘can work’

The following article by Pat Doyle was published in the January 7, 2014 issue of the Star

Bicyclists say Southwest light-rail plan ‘can work’

Opponents of the Southwest rail plan have cited its potential harm to bike trails, but cycling advocates say “it can work.”

“Save the Trails, Reroute SWLRT,” read signs outside some Minneapolis homes near the planned path of the Southwest Corridor light-rail transit line. The message: Carving out space for transit in the Kenilworth recreational corridor will harm some of the most cherished bike and pedestrian trails in the city.

But leading trail boosters don’t buy it.

“It can work,” said Nick Mason, chair of a Minneapolis bike advisory panel and a manager of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota.

The disagreement is part of a wider debate over the Southwest line that will heat up this week as the $1.5 billion transit project, the most expensive in the Twin Cities, faces renewed scrutiny after a moratorium to further study its impact from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis.

In the Kenilworth corridor, residents of a neighborhood where the light-rail trains would cross a bridge over a water channel have cited potential harm to adjacent trails as a major reason for opposing plans for the Southwest project. But owners of townhouses nearby are more willing to accept the light rail because it would be hidden in a tunnel near their homes with the trails and a freight train track above it.

The tunnel plan was designed by the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project, in part to satisfy objections to moving the trails to side streets to make room for the light rail.

While the trails would be relocated during light-rail construction, the plan calls for returning them to the corridor in much the same condition as they are today.

Combined bike and pedestrian trails that are now 18 or 19 feet wide would slim to 16 feet. Elsewhere, existing 12-foot-wide bike trails would grow to 14 feet in some areas. Separate pedestrian trails now 5 feet wide would gain another foot.

The biggest change occurs on a roughly three-quarter-mile stretch north of Burnham Road, where two existing trails — each 9 or 10 feet wide and routing bikes in opposite directions — would be replaced by a single 14-foot-wide divided bike trail. A pedestrian trail would remain nearby.

“That is not something that would be a deal breaker for us,” said Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition. “We recognize that not everything is going to be exactly the same.”

Connecting trails preserved

Fawley said there are places along the popular Midtown Greenway bike trail in Minneapolis narrower than the 14-foot-wide bike paths contemplated in Kenilworth. “I don’t think going from the current condition to a 14-foot-wide, two-direction bike trail is destroying the trail,” he said.

An advocate for biking on the nearby Greenway agrees.

“It’s nicer if the bike trail were wider so two bikers can be side-by-side, but that’s kind of a luxury,” said Soren Jensen, executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition.

He supports the Kenilworth plan in part because it preserves a connection with the Greenway bike trail to the south and the Cedar Lake bike trail to the north.

“It’s going to be a real pain for two years” during light-rail construction, he said. “But the important thing from a biking perspective is it gets reconstructed.”

Opponents of the light-rail plans have predicted it will lead to the demise of the trails that wind through a wooded area.

Numerous “Save the Trails” signs of one Southwest opposition group, LRT Done Right, have been posted at homes near a channel linking Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

Most included a demand that the freight train traffic be rerouted, the group’s original goal. More recently signs near the channel and on the group’s website call for rerouting the light rail instead of the freight, reflecting its latest strategy.

“We kind of see ‘Save the Trails’ as a catchall for the environment,” said Courtney Cushing Kiernat. “Saving the trails is something that people who aren’t very familiar with the issue … can understand.

“I give kudos to the planners for looking at saving the trails,” she said, but questioned whether there will be enough room for them at the channel.

She said her group has shifted its focus from the trails to the potential impact of the light-rail construction and operation on water in the channel and nearby lakes. A recent study done for the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District found no “serious concerns” about potential adverse effects, but said that opinion could change as more information is gathered.

Faced with persistent criticism of the project, Gov. Mark Dayton in October delayed key decisions so another water study could be conducted. Details of that study are expected to be unveiled in a series of public meetings over the next few weeks that will help shape the future debate over the Southwest project.

The first meetings will be held Tuesday at the Kenwood Community Center near the Kenilworth corridor in Minneapolis and Thursday at the St. Louis Park Recreation Center.

The Met Council, criticized for its handling of earlier meetings, has hired a consultant to help explain the water study and an examination of possible new ways to relocate freight train traffic from the Kenilworth corridor to St. Louis Park. The suburb has resisted past attempts to do so.

Minneapolis officials demanded both studies. The Met Council under state law must seek the consent of Minneapolis, St. Louis Park and other communities along the Southwest line to move forward with the light-rail plan, a process expected to begin this winter.

Tests at condo sites

Meanwhile, Met Council engineers are conducting tests near the foundations of some condominiums south of Cedar Lake Parkway to determine how close they would be to a light-rail tunnel.

“When we get that information we’ll make a decision as to what we think is in the best interest,” said Nancy Green, who represents the Calhoun Isles Condominium Association on Southwest corridor issues.

Still, the plan gets a relatively warm response south of Cedar Lake Parkway, compared to earlier options that involved removing homes or the bike trail. Resident Bob Brockway said most condo and townhouse owners agree that the tunnel “is the best that we can expect, considering the alternatives.”