The following article by Dylan Thomas was published in the Southwest Journal on July 3, 2014


Attorneys representing a group calling themselves the Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis argue in a letter to local officials that the municipal consent process for Southwest light rail is out of compliance with state law.

That law requires a preliminary study of the environmental impact of the project, known as a draft environmental impact statement or DEIS. But the attorneys argue the design approved in April by the Metropolitan Council, which includes two shallow tunnels through Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor, was never evaluated in the 2012 DEIS.

“Minneapolis will have a public hearing, and it’s very difficult to participate in that process and comment about the proposed plans unless you also have available the analysis of the environmental effects of those plans,” said attorney Thomas Johnson of Gray Plant Mooty.

State law governing the municipal consent process requires all five cities on the proposed light-rail route to hold public hearings on the $1.68-billion project. As of late June, Hopkins and Minnetonka had voted to approve.

With the mid-July deadline for cities to vote up or down fast approaching, Minneapolis was the only city that hadn’t yet scheduled a hearing. Hennepin County recently set its vote for July 8.

Throughout the contentious planning process there have been repeated warnings that delays would raise the cost of building light rail and potentially jeopardize the federal funds that are key to the project. But Johnson said Lakes and Parks Alliance aimed to “put people on notice” it could take legal action if a preliminary environmental review of the tunnels isn’t completed before the municipal consent process concludes.

“We’ll wait to see what happens,” he said.

Met Council responds

Johnson previously represented the Kenilworth Preservation Group, an organization that at one time advocated a $330- million deep-bore tunnel for light rail when it became clear a freight reroute was a long shot. Members of that group and other area property owners, including some affiliated with LRT Done Right, now make up the Lakes and Parks Alliance, he said.

The alliance is also represented by attorney Lewis Remele of Bassford Remele.

Their letter, dated June 23 and mailed the following day, was addressed to Mayor Betsy Hodges and Council President Barbara Johnson. Copies were sent to the rest of the City Council and Met Council Chair Sue Haigh.

Asked for comment, Met Council Communications Director Meredith Vadis emailed this response:

“Under federal and state law, the municipal consent process runs parallel to the environmental review process. The law does not preclude the submission of preliminary design plans to municipalities under the municipal consent process prior to completion of the environmental reviews.”

The shallow-tunnel design emerged in 2013 as Minneapolis and St. Louis Park battled over light rail plans. The Minneapolis City Council endorsed an at-grade light rail route through Kenilworth assuming that a freight line would first be rerouted through St. Louis Park, but the suburb successfully blocked the move.
Minneapolis started closed-door negotiations with Met Council over the project this spring.

Hodges’ communications director, Kate Brickman, wrote in an email, “Mayor Hodges and the City Council have long expressed concerns about environmental impacts in this corridor.”

“Beyond that, we are still in mediation with the Met Council and respect the confidentiality of the process,” Brickman added.

More questions

In a separate letter sent to Hodges and the City Council that same week, residents of 143-unit Minneapolis condominium tower expressed concerns about the unknown impacts Southwest light rail construction and operation might have on their building.

One of two shallow tunnels intended to carry trains through the narrow Kenilworth Corridor will be dug just feet from the Calhoun-Isles Condominiums, a converted grain elevator located north of Lake Street between Lake Calhoun and Cedar Lake. They worry the building could be damaged during construction and also about the vibration and noise from passing trains.

“They are concerned, for good reason, that the construction of the tunnel, and the operation of the trains, will render their homes uninhabitable,” wrote Felhaber Larson attorney Christopher Hayhoe, who represents the Calhoun-Isles Condominium Association.

About 200 trains per day are expected to make the trip between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie when the 15.8- mile extension of the Green Line opens in 2019. The condo association’s letter argued there will not be enough detailed information before the City Council is required to approve or disapprove of plans in July

“The Condominium residents should not have to sacrifice their property so that this project can be constructed in this way,” Hayhoe wrote. “We respectfully request that you supply us with assurance that these concerns will be accounted for.”

Spokesperson Laura Baenen wrote in an email the Met Council “believe(s) the condos will remain habitable with Southwest LRT.”

“We have been meeting with the condo association to discuss the project office’s studies,” Baenen continued. “We will continue to coordinate with them to conduct further field evaluation and engineering study on the design and construction of the shallow tunnel.”