Southwest LRT: Bumpy Path to Crucial Mpls. Vote

The following article by Pat Doyle was published in the August 13, 2014 issue of the StarTribune.

Southwest LRT: Bumpy Path to Crucial Mpls. Vote


Concerns linger over effects on lakes, recreation and homes as Minneapolis prepares to vote this month on the Southwest line.

Even if the Minneapolis City Council soon approves plans for the Southwest Corridor light rail, its impact on lakes, trails and homes in the community will be dissected and debated for months.

Environmental concerns have prompted some homeowners along the route to urge the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to withhold funding until the impact of the project is more clarified.

They say the city needs that information before voting on whether to consent to the project Aug. 29.

But there are potential stumbling blocks to the city giving its consent. City leaders are demanding a guarantee that nearby freight tracks in the Kenilworth corridor will remain publicly owned, and some council members worry that plans for restoring biking and hiking trails might be scratched to save money.

The concerns persist even as several City Council members last week predicted that a July deal brokered on the Southwest plans would probably be approved.

“There’s a lot of momentum to getting it done,” said Council Member Cam Gordon.

The Southwest line would run nearly 16 miles from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie and cost $1.65 billion, the most expensive transit project in the Twin Cities. The Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project, wants to have Minneapolis’ consent before giving a critical progress report in September to the FTA, which is expected to pay half the cost.

The FTA weighs local support when deciding which transit projects to fund, and the Met Council has said it considers Minneapolis support crucial. Plans for Southwest already have been approved by Eden Prairie, St. Louis Park, Minnetonka and Hopkins — the other cities along the line.

A group of Minneapolis residents that calls itself the Lakes and Parks Alliance has urged the FTA to withhold funding, claiming the environmental review process for the project “is not in compliance with state and federal law.”

They’re represented by former Hennepin County Attorney Tom Johnson, who wrote the federal agency that the review “must occur before decisions being made by governmental bodies.”

An environmental review of earlier Southwest options was completed in 2012. At the time, planners were considering moving the freight trains to St. Louis Park to make room for the light rail at ground level in the Kenilworth freight corridor. They also considered keeping the freight in the Kenilworth corridor with light rail and trails running alongside entirely at ground level.

The review was critical of running the trains side by side, but St. Louis Park and the railroad that uses the tracks blocked a freight reroute.

The plan brokered last month by negotiators for Minneapolis and the Met Council calls for keeping the freight in the corridor but hiding the light rail in a tunnel south of a channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. The light-rail trains would surface to cross a bridge over the channel and run at ground level north through the corridor.

Johnson said an updated environmental review of the tunnel is needed before citizens and the City Council can adequately evaluate the latest version of the project.

But the Met Council disagrees, saying state law allows cities to consent to the design of a transit project before a revised environmental review is finished. If upcoming studies reveal problems, they can be fixed later. A statute also sets a timetable that requires action by Minneapolis on Southwest by September — before the updated review will be completed.

Two previous studies have concluded that the impact of tunnels on the lakes and channel would be minimal.

Minneapolis officials who brokered the deal didn’t try to postpone a vote on the package so that a new environmental review could be completed. “That’s not really an option for us,” said Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, who played a key role in the negotiations.

The law gives a city another vote if there’s a “substantial change” in plans it approved earlier, said Mark Fuhrmann, who is in charge of light-rail development for the Met Council.

That happened in 2003, when Bloomington voted a second time on the Hiawatha light-rail plans after changes were made in the route and stations.

‘Deal’s not done’

Minneapolis City Council Member John Quincy, whose ward is outside the Southwest route, predicted that the current deal will pass. He said council members trust Glidden, the council vice president, transportation committee chairman Kevin Reich and other city officials who brokered the deal.

“I’m not suggesting it’s going to be 13-0,” Quincy said. “It’s going to be a split vote.”

The deal is set for a city public hearing Aug. 19 and “we’re looking forward to a robust discussion,” he said.

Glidden said the vote “is likely to be positive, but there are a couple of outstanding issues.”
The biggest is future ownership of the freight rail. The deal says the Met Council will “exert whatever influence it has” to persuade Hennepin County, which owns the freight tracks in the corridor, to maintain public ownership and continue restricting its use. While the tracks are currently used by the Twin Cities & Western Railroad, the city worries that selling the tracks to a railroad or allowing another railroad to use them would increase traffic or hazards.

Since the deal was announced, the city has pressed the county for a written commitment in property records that the freight tracks will remain in public ownership. The city earlier thought it had a commitment to move the freight to St. Louis Park, only to learn otherwise.

John Stiles, chief of staff for Mayor Betsy Hodges, last week said of public ownership: “We do require a binding agreement — which will cost the project no money — for municipal consent.”

He said the city made that clear to the county “all along.”

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said, “The city has … elevated it beyond what’s in their deal with the Metropolitan Council. We never agreed to that.”

But McLaughlin, a strong supporter of the Southwest project, said he didn’t see the issue upending the deal, which faces a county vote on Aug. 19.

“I’m not too concerned about this,” he said. “This is kind of the usual details at the end of a deal. We think public ownership, long term, is the right way to go.”

The county wants to end its ownership of the freight tracks and says the Met Council is the logical owner, but the two governments haven’t agreed on terms, and they must settle which of them pays to temporarily move the freight tracks during light-rail construction and other issues.

Gordon wants to take a closer look at the impact of the light-rail tunnel on nearby lakes. He also wants assurances that the tunnel, which is intended to spare homes and bike trails along the future light-rail line, won’t be dropped because the Legislature or a Twin Cities transit funding board “come along and say, ‘Hey, we can’t afford that.’?”

“I want to see something that makes it really clear that if the south tunnel comes out and it destroys the bike trail, the project is canceled,” he said.

“The deal’s not done until the deal’s done,” Glidden said.