The following article by Susu Jeffrey was published in the July 6, 2014 issue of the Daily Planet under Community Voices.
CONSTANT GROWTH — THE CANCER MODEL: SOUTHWEST LRT V. DEMOCRACY
I can’t help thinking about the easiest, cheapest, action to mitigate climate change: plant trees.
We would lose 10,000 inner city trees with the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit shallow tunnels plan through the Cedar Lake Park and Kenilworth bike trails. In the current but ever-morphing Met Council plan only 480 “significant” trees would be cut—the largest trees.
The other almost 90 percent of the vegetation is “not significant.” In Met Council/Hennepin County Commission SWLRT development plans, not all trees or people count equally.
The Equity Sell
Martin Sabo, retired 14-term Minneapolis congressman, called a rare press conference (6/19/14) to comment on the propaganda pitch for the SWLRT. They 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. It wasn’t designed for that.”
The SWLRT was designed “to provide time-saving one-seat rides to people living in suburbs and exurbs,” former state Senator Julie Sabo wrote in Minn Post (4/2/14). It was designed under the George W. Bush Administration criteria to promote sprawl and to avoid “urban density and economically stressed communities.”
At the combined Hennepin County Commission/Met Council Public Hearing on Southwest LRT (5/29/14), African-American spokesman Mel Reeves said equity proposals must be effective and not just more proposals that look good on paper. Several African American spokespeople commented that SWLRT is not near North Side housing, a quarter to half-mile away.
“Rather than demanding a reroute to better serve North Minneapolis,” Angela Erdrich wrote in Minneapolis Issues (online) Forum 6/20/14, North Side leaders took “the pragmatic approach of making a list of transit-related equitable outcomes” such as enhanced bus service, hiring promises, lower bus fares and heated bus shelters.
The fact is that since the 10-year SWLRT planning period began a notable demographic shift has occurred in Minneapolis. People are moving back into the center city. High-end condo development is flourishing downtown and urban rents are skyrocketing. Economically stressed families are going to be moved out of the center city. Gentrification.
Still the proposed southwest route lacks the population density required for light rail transit that almost pays for itself—reportedly 14,000 people per square mile. Hennepin County has 2,082 people per square mile.
SWLRT is predicated on removal of heavy freight rail (coal, oil, natural gas) in the narrow Kenilworth/Cedar Lake bike and rail corridor. The current plan cuts through the upper Chain of Lakes parkland and the regional bike trail used by a million people a year that put Minneapolis on the U.S. pedal commuter map.
The Bassett Creek Valley Master Plan, 20-years in the making, is predicated on completion of the LRT and removal of the Minneapolis impound (tow) lot. The impound lot is scheduled to remain but in a slightly smaller footprint. The 30-acre Bryn Mawr Commons open parkland is no longer a certainty.
The SWLRT proposal is a 21st century kumbayah reminiscent of Indian treaties. Promises, understandings, even guarantees have fallen away as the process rolls along and now it’s deadline time for federal matching funds for the $1.7-billion project. Planning has been brought to term while the plan itself keeps changing.
The nearest the SWLRT comes to the North Side is the western edge of downtown in industrial and to-be-developed no man’s land. The area served as a sacrifice zone for the old factory belt where waste was flushed into Bassett Creek and into the great Cedar Lake wetland, filled as a dump site, filled for a railroad and the Linden rail yards, filled for Interstates 94 and 394, filled because it was cheap. Cheap in the short run. Wetlands serve as water filters.
The Penn Avenue Station would be located in the old wetland where Cedar Lake used to empty to the northeast, into what is now called Bassett’s Creek. During the early 1900s rowboat craze, the Kenilworth Lagoon was dug between Cedar Lake and Isles, reversing the Cedar drainage from Bassett Creek to Minnehaha Creek along the Chain of Lakes. Yes, reversing the surface flow.
Penn Avenue dead ends at the Cedar Lake bluff. Access to the Penn Avenue Station would be 60-feet down, 90 steps on 8-inch risers. There would, of course, be an elevator. In order to reach the stairs or elevator plans call for a horizontal walkway structure above and across the freight rail since the LRT would be on the other side, south of the freight tracks.
No parking is provided at any LRT stations in Minneapolis. They are called kiss-&-ride stations. Neighborhood streets fill with transit rider’s vehicles. Bus riders live in Uptown along Penn Avenue north of Highway 55, and near Broadway. No people live in parkland and there is no opportunity for business development.]
The Van White station would be located under the new Van White Bridge near the access to westbound I-394. The Royalston station would be where Minneapolis Farmer’s Market is now, however the market is also the proposed location of a professional soccer stadium. (City of Stadiums?)
This is glacier-shaped land where the ice shelf paused to carve Cedar Lake, Brownie Lake, Birch Pond, the permanently dewatered Great Medicine Spring, and Wirth Lake in a north- flowing meltwater wash to Bassett Creek while the Chain of Lakes is an old Mississippi River channel.
It’s a watershed divide with complicated geology.
Spearheading the SWLRT process is the seven county Metropolitan Council with 17 appointed members and thus an “accountability problem” since it can override local (elected) governments. After investing years of time and millions of study dollars the overwhelmingly-suburban members repeated “we have to show leadership and make the hard decisions” and voted for the SWLRT. All 16 Caucasian members voted for $800+million in matching funds. Only Minneapolis representative Gary Cunningham, an African American leader in racial transit issues who is the husband of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, opposed SWLRT.
Plant trees is what I would do immediately for and with the North Side. Trees not only clean the air (carbon vacuums) they are about 90-percent water. Trees suck up water, provide shade, act as wind breaks, increase your property value, provide wildlife habitat and have a bona fide calming effect on people.
When Developers Take Over the Watershed
At the May 8 regular meeting of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) the Board of Managers (appointed by Hennepin and Carver county commissioners) brought up SWLRT.
The discussion centered on the Board’s purchase of a 17-acre parcel of land at the proposed Blake SWLRT station, in Hopkins, just east of Blake Road. The tract is south of Knollwood Mall and lies between Minnehaha Creek and Cedar Lake bike trail, next to the railroad tracks. The parcel includes a large cold food storage warehouse.
The $15-million purchase was for the purpose of storm water ponds (water storage), Minnehaha Creek restoration, and for redevelopment investment. The loan for the land purchase will be paid back with tax money and comes due in 2017.
–Richard Miller of Edina, MCWD treasurer, is a former Wells Fargo specialist in bonding and government finance. “…the worst could be that LRT didn’t get approved…we’ve got to do a quiet plan if LRT doesn’t go through and it [the land] doesn’t have its commercial value at its highest and best use as a train station site….We’ve got to build in our budget someplace [for] the losses we’re going to absorb on disposing of that site, because we always know we’ve got more in it than we’ll get from it but the benefits of the [Minnehaha] creek frontage, and the [storm water] storage capacity, etc. you know it had certain value to us and so that could cover the, but you know, if we do have a problem in 2 or 3 years or 4 years you know let’s not have it in a situation where we’re in a disaster with no plan. And I don’t think it would take much of an effort to plan it out, you know, how we’re going to pay for the costs.
–James Wisker, MCWD staff Director of Planning, Projects & Land Conservation: “By the end of July we should have a lot more clarity…worst case scenario planning we should revisit like, July 24th, by then all municipal consent [on SWLRT] should have occurred.”
The recent history of drying out the land for development infrastructure includes the continuing, permanent loss of 27,500 gallons per day at Coldwater Springs following the Hiawatha project completed over a decade ago; the continuing temperature polluted dewatering following a “temporary” construction dewatering permit issued by the DNR in 2011 for 1800 West Lake Street in Minneapolis; and the 2.5-million gallons per day permanent dewatering of the I-394 corridor.
The state Department of Natural Resources is an agency that can issue permits but not enforce compliance. “No one believes any longer in the model of regulatory government as morally capable of containing and altering a civil society founded upon fear of the other and private self-interest,” notes Peter Gabel, professor and legal theorist.
–Richard Miller: “We can’t be naked when that $15-million comes due (in) 2017….We’re planning for the best but we’re ready for the worst”.
–unidentified male voice: “When we started on this…we had very strong interest in senior housing…there’s no question it’s going to be more valuable with light rail…”
–Brian Shekleton, of St. Louis Park, MCWD vice-president, who works for Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin: “And I will offer that light rail will happen…”
–Jeff Casale, a realtor from Shorewood, MCWD secretary (interrupts): “That’s going in the minutes I think.”
–Brian Shekleton (continues): “and by every indication I get that commitment from [Minneapolis] city council members.”
Jeff Casale: If we’re going to have this on the record…disaster is nothing like I would have considered it as. I think the property has been improved significantly from the work that we’ve done surrounding it…whether or not LRT goes in that property will have significant real estate value and I would not characterize it at all as disaster planning.”
Richard Miller: “Well, you can call it what you want but it will be [a disaster] when the note comes due and we got a third of the value of the note.”
Government by the Appointed
Governance by appointed officials is a modern monarchical system. The appointment chain of the SWLRT begins with the appointed-for-life Supreme Court justices’ appointment of George W. Bush as president of the United States. The SWLRT was developed under the Bush presidential policy of servicing the sub- and exurbs to promote sprawl and to avoid “urban density and economically stressed communities.”
Whatever the design criteria local officials can concoct a scheme to fit the rules in order to merit the money and commission studies to support the plan. The greater Twin Cities Metropolitan Council representatives with four St. Paul/Minneapolis appointees and 12 bedroom community members are 3-to-1 weighted to peripheral communities.
The objective is to win money for new development. Suburb-heavy appointed political powers like Met Council and the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District contradict the idea of one man-one vote since cities are population centric and banking/business hubs.
Money attracts money. The lure of money pulls political party machinery, whatever political party, into the plan. And the promises of preferential treatment to the poor and rerouting freight rail—well, let’s just pull together for the greater good.
SWLRT is a green project—green as in the color of money, not the environment. The proposed double tunnels would run between Minneapolis famous Chain of Lakes, between Cedar, Lake of the Isles and Calhoun. Watershed district ratings for the Chain of Lakes flowing downstream from the top are: Brownie C-, Cedar and Lake of the Isles both C+, Calhoun (largest and deepest of the lakes) A, Harriet A-, Nokomis (which is bisected by Cedar Avenue) C+, and Hiawatha B-.
In a bandwagon coincidence the SWLRT shallow tunnel water studies conclude with project approval although the language is slippery and based on a “draft, preliminary” design.
Words like “intended” and “assumed” are used in the study by Wenck engineering vice-president and MCWDistrict Engineer Michael Panzer for MCWD which owns the $15-million parcel of land where the proposed SWLRT Blake Station would be located.
Burns & McDonnell Engineering reports (3/18/14) to the Met Council that “The water table generally ranges in depth from 15 to 25 feet below grade along the proposed route” and that groundwater discharges into the aquifer rather than into surface water” although “it is difficult to conclusively determine the groundwater flow pattern.”
The MCWD study found that “After construction, the interior of the concrete tunnel itself will have a drainage system intended to collect any seepage through the concrete and interior drainage. This water volume is a small amount (11-million gallons per year) compared to the overall water budget for the lakes. We believe the assumed seepage rates are reasonable and since it is interior to the tunnel, the intention is to drain the system to sanitary sewer. This water will be the only portion permanently extracted from the shallow groundwater.”
Burns & McDonnell’s evaluation theorizes that 30,100 gallons per day would be pumped out of the tunnels into sanitary sewers which were not built for that much fluid traffic. Another 17,800 gallons per day would be piped into storm sewers, treated, except for chlorides (salt), and returned into the groundwater. Taken out of one place and piped back to another with uncertain groundwater movement to resupply lakes Cedar, Isles and Calhoun with natural earth-cleaned spring water—this is a water quality conundrum.
Cedar is my swimming lake. When I side-stroke leisurely across the lake at sunset I get those ah-ha! tingles at the cool spring water spots surprising me here and there.
The Burns-McDonnell water study continues, “Impervious steel sheet pile walls…will extend ten or more feet beneath the water table in some areas and, therefore, ha[ve] the potential to block horizontal groundwater flow and potentially result in an increase in water levels,” that is, flooding.
If flooding would affect the groundwater level, the freight line, the proposed shallow tunnels, the Penn Avenue LRT station, and nearby residences, is not considered. Lake levels, water quality and the absorbency or contraction rate of land denuded of trees, deep-rooted prairie vegetation planted along the trails and everything from fish and frogs to coyotes and owls—are “externality” issues. The elected Minneapolis Park Board, “owner” of the Chain of Lakes and adjacent parkland in the name of the people, does not have a vote in the SWLRT consent process.
The Minneapolis Park Board acquired, cleaned, drained and filled parcels of land around Cedar Lake from the 1920s into the 1940s. In 1958 Bassett Creek water was pumped into Brownie Lake, to Cedar and down the chain because Minnehaha Falls was a low dribble. It only raised lake levels four-plus inches. A larger water transfer system was built in 1966 using Mississippi River water to keep Minnehaha Falls falling.
The two SWLRT tunnel boxes would be dug into land cleared of all vegetation for waterproof enclosures 35-feet wide, about 30-feet deep and a half mile long, plus space for construction, equipment and debris. Angela Erdrich comments that “Lake of the Isles deepest spot is normally 31-feet.” Most of Isles is 5-10-feet deep. Cedar is roughly 10-25-feet deep with two 40+foot drop offs. Cedar and Isles are each shorter in length than the double tunnels combined one mile length.
“Cedar Lake water quality grades have been a B for the past seven years,” Kelly Dooley, MCWD Water Quality Supervisor, notes. “Time will tell if 2013 (C+) was a bad year or the beginning of a new trend in Cedar Lake water quality.”
The Minneapolis Park Board of Commissioners passed Resolution 2012-209 at their regular meeting (5/21/14) stating: “RESOLVED, That the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board states its determination that the project as currently proposed to bridge LRT over the Kenilworth Channel is likely not the most feasible and prudent alternative and therefore the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board will not grant project consent under Section 4(f) of the Federal Transportation Act until greater analysis occurs and project plans are modified.”
During discussion of the SWLRT tunnel plan Brad Bourn, District 6 commissioner recommended no consent until more analysis. “If we remain silent that is not “consent.” Board President Liz Wielinski (District 1) said that Barr Engineering did a study and concluded that the tunnel is technically feasible.
The staff attorney advised “more information.” He spoke of the buoyancy problem of sinking a tunnel down into the water table, listed water infiltration and air quality issues and stated that the resolution opposes the current alignment where the freight and light rail would be side-by-side in the narrow channel between lakes, referred to as co-location.
“We supported deep tunnel before,” John Erwin, Commissioner At Large spoke.
“What about water quality and geology?” Annie Young, At Large commissioner asked. “As you know I am against going through the channel at all. I’m worried about seven generations from now.” The answer was that Barr Engineering’s hydrological reported “no impact.”
“”I want to be on record that I don’t believe that,” Young replied.
Living With Climate Change
The “rich white NIMBYs” who don’t want SWLRT in their backyards is a masterful use of marketing. It is PC-PR, politically correct public relations. It appeals to liberals and minorities and developers and the advocates of constant growth but grants no rights to nature, to “the commons,” land, water, air, not just now but into the future.
The Sierra Club’s Northstar Environmental Justice representative, Karen Monahan, wrote (4/11/14) “I want the SWLRT to happen. I’m not committed to any certain route but I am committed to making sure this happens.”
But the route is the problem when $1.7-billion would be spent “to provide time-saving one-seat rides to people living in suburbs and exurbs.” This is not money manna from Washington; it is our tax money.
“Both federal and state laws have required a thorough environmental review of major construction projects, such as the SWLRT, where there is the potential for significant environmental harm. This review must occur prior to decisions being made by governmental bodies that would bias the objectivity and thoroughness of the environmental review,” lawyers for Lakes and Parks Alliance wrote (6/23/14) to Minneapolis City Council members and the Met Council.
The deadline for municipal consent is Bastille Day, July 14.
After Bastille Day look for:
* increased mediation pressure.
* a law suit.