Southwest Light Rail in Minneapolis: Who Will Be Held Accountable?

The following article was written by Patty Schmitz, a member of LRT Done Right, and published in the May 23, 2014 issue of the Hill and Lake Press.  It is a long and detailed article and an excellent one well worth reading:

Southwest Light Rail in Minneapolis: Who Will Be Held Accountable?

While neighbors in our neck of the woods have found themselves put on the defensive for not being “good regional citizens”, a recap of how we find ourselves in this unfortunate decision is in order.

Governor Dayton summed it up well:

“The potential conflict between light-rail and freight trains could easily have been foreseen by Met Council staff, the planners and the like, at least five years if not10 years ahead of now. “ Gov. Mark Dayton. This quote appeared in the Star Tribune on April 9, the same day the Met Council voted to approve the SWLRT design which includes co-location of freight and LRT in the Kenilworth Corridor. At the meeting, Met Council members justified their vote in part with the notion that “we cannot wait until we have achieved perfection.”

What no Met Council member asked, or seemed concerned about is this: how could a conflict of this magnitude that “could easily be foreseen” be overlooked?  Who is responsible? And should it really fall upon Minneapolis to literally be the “fall guy” for this enormous public oversight?

Let’s start with a brief history of the SWLRT.


The planning for SWLRT began nearly 15 years ago. Many alternative routes were studied for each of the municipalities involved. In Minneapolis, the Kenilworth route was selected over several considered.

Cost and travel time from Eden Prairie were factors in its selection. The Kenilworth corridor had been purchased by the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority (HCRRA) for future transit, and the direct right of way (ROW) made it seem like a logical parcel of land to run LRT on.

For a time, there was no rail running on the Kenilworth, until it returned on a temporary basis in 1998, to solve the void left by the closure of what is now known as the Midtown Greenway. HCRRA clearly stated that freight rail would operate in the Kenilworth only until that corridor was used for transit. When the Kenilworth Corridor was selected for the SWLRT route, a key condition of that alignment for Minneapolis, as documented in many places, was “the LRT [Kenilworth] alternatives require that the existing freight rail service be rerouted through St. Louis Park” (SWLRT Alternatives Analysis, 2007).

Unequal Treatment of Cities Along the Alignment

At the time the alignment was selected, then Mayor Rybak supported an option that would serve Uptown and the dense urban neighborhoods to the east in South Minneapolis over the Kenilworth alignment. That option dismissed by the planners, in part because of additional cost, potential disruptions during construction and longer commute times. As (now former) Mayor Rybak recently stated: “The history on this is clear. The county pushed the idea of the Kenilworth Corridor over our objections.”

The cost of the freight re-route was not included in that analysis, which seems outrageous in retrospect.

Had that cost been factored in, the Kenilworth alignment would not have been the most cost effective. The planners KNEW that the freight needed to be re-routed to make room for the LRT, and yet they ignored that issue. No steps were taken to begin the process of rerouting freight, to meet that key condition.

While we are on the topic of cost, the planners who were so set on the Kenilworth HCCRA owned land in Minneapolis, took a very different view when it came to the HCRRA-owned ROW in Eden Prairie/Minnetonka. Rather than running in a straight line along HCRRA-owned ROW, Eden Prairie/Minnetonka advocated for a better alignment, in part to preserve the HCRRA owned land for greenspace. SWLRT planners agreed to purchase alternative ROW to alter the alignment for those communities, increasing the then overall project cost 30% from. $900 million to $1.2 billion.

Who Was Minding the Re-Route Store?

This is the $64,000 question – or perhaps it’s the $200 million question. That is the approximate cost of the proposed tunnels that are intended to make up for the “failure to plan”.

The people leading SWLRT planning, those serving Hennepin County and the SWLRT Policy Advisory Committee (PAC), apparently never understood the actual costs and feasibility of moving freight out of the Kenilworth corridor. Minneapolis agreed to this nonpreferred alignment for the “common good” believing that the planners were doing their part to take care of the freight re-route.

It’s shocking, even negligent, that the planners did not obtain an agreement with the freight company before recommending Kenilworth as “Locally Preferred Alternative” (LPA). It would seem that no one did the basic due diligence to determine that the freight could actually be rerouted as planned. Finally, those planners considered the freight reroute a “separate project,” but it was a project without a budget or plan.

By not including the cost of the freight reroute in the project, it tilted the scales to make the Kenilworth alignment appear cheaper. Recent railroad studies, and there have been many, have clarified the costs, impact and challenges of actually achieving a freight reroute.

After the last 16 months of back-and-forth engineering and pitting communities against each other, we only now know what should have been known five to ten years earlier – the Kenilworth alignment as defined by the Alternatives Analysis was never a viable alternative.

Who Was Responsible and Who Will Be Held Accountable?

It seems clear that the responsible parties to this planning failure are Hennepin County, HCRRA and the Met Council – those are the entities and individuals who allowed this to happen on their watch. Rather than calling those people to accountability, Minneapolis citizens and its elected officials are widely blamed and accused of being NIMBYs and obstructionists. Ironically, they are blamed for their due diligence in calling out the history of failure and broken promises of the SWLRT project.

With the destructive history outlined above and the Governor’s conclusion that it all could have been easily foreseen five to ten years ago, it is not acceptable policy to continue to grant credibility to the SWLRT process.

Most recently, the “wrong” plans for the alignment were delivered to the city of Minneapolis, with a different design than what had been previously presented to the city and approved just one day earlier.

The government and non-profit agencies, project professionals, officials, and processes responsible for the large-scale, enormously costly SWLRT planning failure are in most cases still actors in the SWLRT project and other regional planning. Public integrity demands an investigation to find out how this “easily foreseen” failure occurred, who, specifically, and what is responsible, who will be held accountable and how, and in what ways the planning process will be reformed and accountability accomplished to restore trust in government as representative and competent.

What to Do About the SWLRT?

We are told that we are at a crossroads and that to continue to delay is to kill this project. And if this project is delayed further, it will have dire consequences on all future transit projects funded by the Federal Government.

But the fact of the matter is, projects such as this are required to undergo an Environmental Impact Study.

While that study occurred in 2012, it did not include the proposed tunnels, clearly the most environmentally risky part of this alignment. A complete Environmental Study, not the short cut version that has been done, must be completed.

If the delay for SWLRT means that planners should move on to the Bottineau line, so be it. The SWLRT can be done better. Too much is at stake.

Contact the City Council and tell them to vote no on municipal consent AND to demand accountability for this flawed process.