Latest Vote has Southwest LRT on Shaky Ground

The following article by Eric Roper and Pat Doyle was published in the March 6, 2014 issue of the StarTribune:


Minneapolis City Council opposes digging tunnels for contentious light-rail line.

The Southwest Corridor light- rail project took another blow Wednesday after the Minneapolis City Council formally stated its opposition to digging tunnels in a recreational corridor to make room for freight and transit alongside the Chain of Lakes.

The council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the tunnels but stopped short of supporting an earlier proposal threatening to deny municipal consent for the project. The Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project, must seek consent from cities along the line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.

It marked the first time that the City Council explicitly opposed digging tunnels for the light-rail transit, which the Met Council offered to satisfy the city’s objection to running the light rail at ground level next to the freight traffic in the Kenilworth corridor.

Minneapolis instead has pushed to relocate the freight out of the corridor, but a plan for rerouting it in St. Louis Park is opposed by that community.

Wednesday’s vote, which was supported by Mayor Betsy Hodges, puts St. Louis Park and Minneapolis at loggerheads with four months until a June 30 deadline for the cities to agree to the project or risk losing local funding for it.

A longtime supporter of the Southwest project warned that it was in jeopardy.

“This line could be killed,” Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said Wednesday. “And I don’t think that’s in the long-term interest of the city of Minneapolis.”

“If we’re going to be talking about ‘One Minneapolis,’ if we’re going to be talking about a modern transit system, that is not in the interest of Minneapolis,” he said.

In demanding that freight be rerouted out of the Kenilworth corridor, council members renewed an argument that St. Louis Park reneged on a deal from the 1990s to accept the reroute in exchange for receiving funds to clean up a polluted area of the city.

The freight tracks had previously been moved to the corridor from what became the Midtown Greenway, and Minneapolis officials say the freight traffic was never intended to remain in Kenilworth.

“They did not just get that money for free,” Council Member Jacob Frey said of St. Louis Park. “They promised in no uncertain terms to take the freight reroute when it came time.”

But St. Louis Park officials dispute that version of history. “That document doesn’t exist,” City Council Member Jake Spano said. “If we had that document that was etched in stone, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

Spano said Minneapolis politicians have been “assuring the residents in that area that freight would get out when the light rail came. If they were serious about that, they should have engaged the freight companies.”

The Twin Cities & Western Railroad, which runs through the Kenilworth corridor, has rejected the reroute plan as unsafe. Railroads have considerable influence over decisions made by a federal agency that approves freight-line rerouting.

McLaughlin said rerouting freight has become more difficult since the genesis of the Southwest project 17 years ago because TC&W and other railroads are running longer, heavier trains.

“There are safety concerns that have changed and standards that have changed,” he said. He said the railroads hold much of the power in any showdown with local government over changing a route.

“It’s about a four-cushion billiard shot to actually get the freight relocation to happen,” McLaughlin said.

Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents homeowners along the Kenilworth corridor, was the most outspoken opponent at Wednesday’s meeting.

“Now all of a sudden we’re being asked to sit quietly through a delicate moment when you slam this out of the ballpark and shove it down our throats,” she said.

A previous version of the resolution stated that the council would deny municipal consent if the tunnel option was chosen by the Metropolitan Council. The version adopted Wednesday merely said the council opposes the tunnels.

Hodges said the council was merely restating a position it already held. But 2010 and 2012 city statements in favor of rerouting the freight did not state a position on the tunnels; they weren’t proposed by the Met Council until last summer.

“I am pleased to see the Minneapolis City Council approve this resolution reaffirming the city’s opposition to co-location of both freight and light rail in the narrow Kenilworth Corridor with shallow tunnels,” Hodges said in a statement.

Her policy aide, Peter Wagenius, later said that the mayor has opposed the tunnels and intended to say that the City Council objects to them as another form of locating the light rail next to the freight.

The Metropolitan Council responded that “any City Council resolution from any city taking a position on Southwest LRT is premature” before a recommendation on a plan by the Met Council project staff in April.