The following article by Pat Doyle was published in the January 8, 2014 issue of the Star Tribune:
Southwest light-rail gripe session stirs some anger
A consultant tried to sell skeptics on the stalled Southwest line at a public session in the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis.
Stalled and stung by critics, planners of the most expensive light-rail line in the Twin Cities area resumed efforts Tuesday night to sell the project to a skeptical public.
They got help from a consultant who organized a gripe session for 200 people in the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis, where some residents oppose running the Southwest light rail through a recreational corridor near their homes.
“There is a lot of anger, a lot of mistrust,” said consultant Dan Cramer, whose firm is being paid $22,000 by a public agency to help calm critics.
He has a ways to go.
The session began with a dozen group meetings around tables in the Kenwood Community Center gym, where participants were encouraged to talk about specific elements of the light-rail project that irked them. But people at some tables focused their ire instead on the Metropolitan Council, the agency running the project and studying its impact on nearby lakes.
“There was distrust, fear,” said Barbara Nash, one group leader. “Afraid of polluting and losing our lakes.”
The Met Council’s plan for the $1.5 billion project includes tunnels costing $160 million straddling a water channel between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. Minneapolis sought the study to determine whether the construction or operation of the light-rail tunnels would pollute or lower water levels of the lakes. An earlier study found no adverse impact.
At other tables, people accused the Met Council of putting up misleading posters in the gym to support the light-rail plan and reject alternatives.
Other participants disagreed among themselves. A common argument of Kenwood residents opposed to plans for running the line through their neighborhood, one of the city’s more affluent, is that it won’t provide enough service to poorer communities.
“Put the brakes on this thing and reconsider,” Rich Miller said. “We probably should go back to square one.”
But Kurt Howard said the line, which would run from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis, would benefit poorer populations by giving them better access to jobs.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said of the project. “It’s progress more than any individual neighborhood.”
More meetings planned
Cramer runs Grassroots Solutions, which the Met Council retained for advice on “engaging community members in discussion and soliciting feedback” on Southwest at four public meetings. He’s a former aide to Sen. Paul Wellstone, and the firm works for prominent labor unions and DFL politicians.
The Met Council caught heat this year from Minneapolis homeowners over plans to keep freight trains in the Kenilworth corridor and run the light-rail line in tunnels nearby. Some of the most vocal critics are DFL activists in the corridor area, who urged Gov. Mark Dayton to intervene.
The decision to pay Grassroots for “facilitating” public meetings grew out of closed-door strategy sessions this fall involving Dayton, a DFLer, Met Council officials and leading DFL legislators in response to opposition to the project.
Those meetings followed meetings last summer at which the council came under fire from people who said it didn’t pay enough attention to the public.
Dayton delayed action and said there was a need for greater public involvement in planning the Southwest line. He supported getting an outsider involved in running public meetings on the project.
The Met Council also has caught heat from St. Louis Park residents over proposals to reroute the freight train traffic into their community from the Kenilworth corridor.
In addition to studying the project’s impact on Minneapolis lakes, another study will re-examine possible options for rerouting freight out of the corridor. That review is expected to be the key issue at a meeting Thursday in St. Louis Park.
Two meetings are expected in February to go over draft reports of the studies.