The following article by Pat Doyle was published in the July 9, 2014 issue of the StarTribune.
IN MPLS., LRT DEAL GETS A COOL RECEPTION
A new plan for the proposed Southwest Corridor light rail line through a critical area of Minneapolis, crafted to clear the way for local approvals of the $1.68 billion project, got a stormy reception Tuesday.
Mary Pattock, who lives a few blocks from the future light rail route in the Minneapolis Kenilworth corridor, saw the project as victory for suburban interests with long-range consequences for the city.
“It seems to set a precedent,” she told Minneapolis City Council members.
One man called the project “a billion-dollar boondoggle.”
But Gerald Savage, another Minneapolis resident, said rejecting the light-rail project would reduce tax revenue for the city.
“Focus on the majority of property owners and not just the .01 percent in Kenilworth,” Savage said.
About 250 people attended the hearing at Anwatin Middle School, some holding banners and placards warning that the light rail might harm nearby lakes and recreation land.
Overcoming opposition from Minneapolis residents and leaders is key to moving forward on the nearly 16-mile line that would be the largest transit project in Twin Cities history.
Minneapolis City Council approval is still needed to seal the deal that was announced Tuesday after negotiations between city leaders and officials of the Metropolitan Council, the agency building the project.
City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, who represented Minneapolis in negotiations, said, “I hope my colleagues will support this.” She called the project “critical” to the region.
The City Council and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges have long opposed running the Southwest light rail next to existing freight trains in the Kenilworth corridor, an area popular with bikers and hikers and home to some affluent DFLers. It didn’t matter whether the plan called for running light rail above ground or in two tunnels straddling a water channel.
But under pressure from labor, downtown business and Gov. Mark Dayton to act, the city abandoned its attempts to reroute the freight in St. Louis Park. Minneapolis agreed to drop one tunnel in favor of running the light rail at ground level, adding a new train station and having $30 million available from cost savings for landscaping, noise abatement and improving access to other Minneapolis stations.
The deal also seeks to retain public ownership of the land for the freight tracks.
“We are called upon as a city to move this project forward for the good of the region,” Hodges said before the hearing. She said the deal provides “as many protections and as good protections for the residents of Minneapolis as we could.”
The funding commitment goes beyond the wish lists submitted by Minnetonka and Hopkins as part of their approving the line. Those requests will be filled only at the discretion of the Met Council if contingency funds are available.
St. Louis Park and Eden Prairie are scheduled to vote on the new Southwest plans next Monday.
Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh said Tuesday she wasn’t worried that those cities would seek guaranteed funding of additional amenities in reaction to the Minneapolis deal.
“Those are the same sorts of details in design work that we’ve done with all of the cities along the project,” Haigh said of the Minneapolis features. “This isn’t what I would call extras.”
Haigh said the city’s opposition to running the light rail next to the freight delayed decisions about funding the features until the deal was worked out. It eliminates a tunnel that would have hidden the light rail north of a water channel between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles in the Kenilworth corridor and restores a station in the corridor at 21st Street. A tunnel planned for south of the channel would still be built.
Because the deal substantially changes a plan approved earlier by the Met Council, it delays the municipal consent process by more than a month. Minneapolis had faced a deadline Monday to approve the earlier plan of two tunnels, but now expects to endorse the new deal by late August or September.
The deal will be reviewed and possibly approved by a group of metro leaders and the full Met Council Wednesday.
At a Minneapolis City Council committee meeting Tuesday, members seemed generally supportive of the deal. But Council Member Cam Gordon questioned whether the city was expected to approve the plan before a comprehensive environmental review is completed.
Some residents groups have been pressing the city to demand more environmental study of the proposed route and have threatened lawsuits over the issue.
Haigh said later that she expected the project to stand up to environmental scrutiny.
The provision of the deal calling for the freight tracks in the Kenilworth corridor to remain in public ownership doesn’t guarantee that a railroad with rights to the track couldn’t run more trains or carry hazardous materials.
Mayor Betsy Hodges’ policy director Peter Wagenius and Glidden said the provision is intended to maintain the status quo and lessen the risk of increased annoyance or hazards.
“It’s very important that the freight situation not get worse than it is today,” Wagenius said.
Video: Minneapolis light-rail hearing draws big crowd: