Bob Carney Reports on Sabo’s News Conference on SWLRT

The following notes were taken by Bob Carney Jr., East Lake Harriet resident and former candidate for mayor of Minneapolis, who attended Congressman Martin Sabo’s news conference on June 19, 2014.  They are posted here with permission.

Congressman Sabo’s news conference and opposition to Southwest LRT

As a “candidate-journalist”, I attended Congressman Sabo’s 10 AM news conference today, held in front of the “Father of Waters” statue inside City Hall.  Unfortunately, I ended up rushing out the door (to catch a bus, of course!), and didn’t bring a video camera to record it, so I’m relying on my horrible and slow handwriting for quotes, which must be treated as paraphrases unless noted.

We were supplied an advance copy of his written remarks, which I have requested as an e-mail – I’ll post it as an attachment when I receive it.  As he spoke before the Q and A period, I followed the transcript, and noted some variations, but nothing that changed the substance of the printed statement.

One aspect of the news conference that struck me was the relatively small number of journalists covering it.  The Star Tribune sent Pat Doyle, who in my opinion seems to slant his coverage in favor of the proposed Southwest Light Rail plan.  MPR sent Curtis Gilbert, who in my assessment produced the best reporting, although it seems obvious that “space constraints” limited all of the coverage from all sources.

Gilbert’s article included two paragraphs in response to his question – paraphrasing – why was Sabo getting involved in this so late, when it seems to be a “done deal”? Quoting Gilbert’s article:

“A Democrat who represented Minneapolis in Congress for almost three decades, Sabo said he decided to speak out about the project and its $1.7 billion cost after hearing some of the recent arguments made by proponents of the line, including how it would help people on Minneapolis’ North Side.”

“Backers tried to ‘sell it for a while that this is something that did great things for the North Side, which I thought was just despicable and, frankly, so blatantly untrue it was laughable,’ Sabo told reporters Thursday at Minneapolis City Hall. ‘It was not designed for that and it doesn’t do anything.’”

Of course, Mr. Sabo didn’t just tell reporters this – he told everyone. Leaving that aside, I was frankly shocked to hear Sabo use such blunt, harsh language – in particular the word “despicable.”  My concern isn’t that what he said is untrue – unfortunately I think it is an entirely accurate assessment. However, my impression of Congressman Sabo is that he is a very reserved person.  That kind of language is SO totally out of character – he must have felt badly about what he perceived as a situation that made such blunt language necessary.  This language, in itself, should be a real wake up call to a lot of serious minded people who are following this issue closely –and of course many are readers of this forum.

Sabo has a reputation as an expert on Transportation, and was the ranking member of the U.S. House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee.  During the Q and A – which included questions from both self-described journalists (including myself) and members of the public – his recounting of historical background was both very informative, and clearly demonstrated that he has no loss of mental acuity.  This simply adds weight to his assessment that the proposed Southwest Light Rail plan would yield such small results that the $850 million in state and local funding simply cannot justified.

Sabo rightly noted that running the line through Kenilworth would – at best – permanently scar a beautiful bike route to downtown, and one that is steadily growing as both a recreational and a commuter trail.  I say “at best” because beyond that consideration, he noted that the Metropolitan Council is asking for approval before the assessment of the environmental impact is complete.

During the course of the question and answer session, it appeared to me that Sabo has no confidence in the Metropolitan Council.   Citing a Urban Development Action Grants program he had seen used by HUD during his career, he said that proposals that went through that process were always improved by the process.  He then said he had no confidence in that today – with reference to the Metropolitan Council’s process.  We’ve already see what he thinks of what he described as a “PR pitch” to present the Southwest Light Rail as an “equity train.”  Congressman Sabo also made this comment: “There is a big difference between people who politely listen, and people who really hear what is being said.”

Mr. Sabo also offered this suggestion: the Chair of the Metropolitan Council should have a public hearing with five members of the public (I volunteer!) who could both ask questions and pose follow up questions.  The more typical procedure I have observed is to allow public “testimony” – typically three minutes – often with no response from the Metropolitan Council, but almost invariably without follow up questions permitted. In response to my own two questions, Mr. Sabo said that the Southwest Light Rail proposal is a legitimate issue for this fall’s election, and that there should be a process where serious transit proposals by citizens can be considered.  I’ll be launching a thread on that.

In conclusion: $1.7 billion is a lot of money.  My own assessment is that the Metropolitan Council’s assumed role is to spread around the cash until every interest group has a powerful economic interest to join the “consensus” of support for the project – and then on to the next one.  Mr. Sabo is standing up and saying: very simply: “this proposed project is so expensive, and so short on actual benefits, that it must be stopped.  Unfortunately, Mr. Sabo also makes clear his view that actually stopping it requires nothing short of “heroism” – his word.  He concluded his prepared remarks with these words – rendered as a kind of verse:

“To the Minneapolis mayor and city council I say:
Our lakes, parks, and trails are our gems.
Don’t despoil them with a poorly planned LRT.
Don’t be bullied into saying yes.
Be a hero – and say no.”

I am trying to promote my own alternative plan for the Southwest LRT corridor, and my “Transit Revolution” more generally, in a bi-partisan way.  That is why I am so pleased and so grateful that Congressman Sabo did what he did today. But I must point to his statement that this is a legitimate political issue in the statewide election.  The “candidate” pole of my bi-polar “candidate-journalist” role now rises to say: If the Southwest Light Rail plan isn’t stopped soon, I think Republicans should raise it as a partisan issue, and make a commitment that a Republican Governor and/or Legislature will both stop Southwest Light Rail before “in its tracks” ever happens, and reform the process by which Transit is expanded in the Twin Cities and Minnesota.

My candidate “pole” continues and concludes: I’m FOR a radically improved Transit system… that’s WHY I’m AGAINST the Southwest Light Rail plan.

As Walter Cronkite used to say: “that’s the way it is…”