The following article by Dylan Thomas was posted on the Southwest Journal’s website on October 2, 2014.
A divided Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board voted Wednesday to spend up to $500,000 studying a tunnel beneath the Kenilworth Channel to carry light rail trains.
The Metropolitan Council planners leading the nearly $1.7 billion Southwest Light Rail Transit Project had previously discarded that option in favor of a bridge over the channel. The resolution, passed on a 5–2 vote, states the bridge “will fundamentally and permanently affect and change park, recreation areas, and historic property” near the channel, which connects Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.
The Park Board’s action could lay the groundwork for a future lawsuit by making the case that a tunnel is a “feasible and prudent alternative” to a bridge. That’s the standard for protecting parkland and historic sites set down in section 4(f) of the Federal Transportation Act.
The resolution was a last-minute addition to the board’s agenda Wednesday. Parks Superintendent Jayne Miller said it was first discussed in a meeting Monday with Commissioner Meg Forney (at-large) and Park Board President Liz Wielinski (District 1). Also present were staff members and two attorneys: Brian Rice, regular legal counsel for the agency, and Byron Starns, who was recently retained by the Park Board in case of Southwest light rail litigation.
Commissioners Brad Bourn (District 6) and Steffanie Musich (District 5) both voted against, arguing that the Park Board was circumventing the public process by not first going through committee.
Bourn said he was ill at home and watching the meeting on TV before discussion of the resolution began. He rushed to the boardroom to join the debate, urging his colleagues to delay the vote until their Oct. 22 meeting.
“For the minimum of transparency and good government on a $500,000 expenditure, I don’t see how we can not do that,” he said.
Bourn also noted two commissioners, Annie Young (at-large) and Jon Olson (District 2), were absent.
But five other commissioners, who argued there was no time to delay, won out.
“This is a very urgent matter that requires immediate attention,” said Commissioner Scott Vreeland (District 3).
Jennifer Ringold, manager of public engagement and city planning, said quick action would get the Park Board and its constituents the answers they want without causing serious delays to the project, which recently entered the final engineering stage. The results of the tunnel study could be entered into an ongoing environmental review of the project, making a lawsuit unnecessary, Ringold said.
Miller said the cost of the tunnel study will be paid out of Park Board reserve funds.
“That’s a ball field,” Wielinski said of the $500,000, adding that she was reluctant to spend the money but saw no other option. She expressed indignation that the Met Council, an unelected body, had not satisfactorily vetted the tunnel option.
“Unlike the Met Council, I have an election certificate,” Wielinski said. “People went to the polls and voted me in here.”
The Met Council released this statement the morning after the meeting: “The Southwest Project Office invested 800 engineering hours looking at tunnels under the channel and presented that information to the Corridor Management Committee in March 2014. The committee did not direct the project office to further evaluate or advance these designs.”
Membership of the Corridor Management Committee referred to in the statement includes elected officials from Hennepin County and each of the five cities along the planned 16-mile light rail route.