Park Board Hires Firm to Study Southwest LRT Tunnel Option
The following article by Eric Best was posted on the November 21, 2014 online edition of the Southwest Journal.
The Minneapolis Park Board passed a resolution Nov.19 to move forward with a study on an alternative option for the Southwest Light Rail Transit Project.
The Park Board voted 7-0 with two abstentions to pay national engineering firm Brierley Associates $245,500 to study the possibility of building a shallow tunnel under the channel that connects the Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake.
The firm would examine if this option would be less disruptive than the option than the bridge option favored by Metropolitan Council planners, who are leading the $1.7 billion Southwest LRT Project. The Park Board would fund the study with reserve funds, according to an Oct. 1 resolution.
The Park Board’s study could be the first step in a future lawsuit if the tunnel is found to be a “feasible and prudent alternative” to the bridge option. According to Section 4(f) of the Federal Transportation Act, a transportation project that uses parkland can only move forward with a proposed route if there’s no “feasible and prudent” alternative. On top of that, however, some planning is necessary to minimize adverse effects to historic sites or parklands.
Met Council drafted an environmental impact statement that indicated the bridge option would have an impact on the channel, but it would be “de minimis.” However, the Park Board’s legal counsel noted in October that the Met Council’s alignment fails to meet “de minimis” requirements because the council “failed to properly consider” a tunnel option and it’s alignment doesn’t meet include all possible planning to mitigate environmental impact.
Jennifer Ringold, the board’s director of strategic planning, said the study would have two phases, one first focusing on feasibility and, if a tunnel option is found to be viable, another on prudence and environmental impact. The board expects results from the first phase in early 2015.
The federal government will release its own environment impact statement early next year, which will identify any new environmental impacts and ways to mitigate them, if any. The public will have a 45-day period to comment on the findings.
The Met Council projects the Southwest LRT beginning service as part of the Green Line in 2019 with heavy construction between 2016 and 2018.
Park Board could workshop with Met Council
Both Superintendent Jayne Miller and Commissioner Liz Wielinski said Met Council staff recently reached out to them about a workshop or discussion regarding the Kenilworth Corridor. Miller and Wielinski said they would be interested in a workshop, but only after the Park Board had engineering consultants with them in the discussion.
Wielinski said Met Council staff told her a discussion would be “off the table” if the Park Board hired consultants, but Miller said Met Council staff told her it made sense to wait until they had consultants.
The Journal reached out to the Met Council and Laura Baenen, communications manager for the SWLRT Project, said staff would be willing to meet with the Park Board and its consultants.
Wielinski said she wants a “more level playing field” with the Met Council if they are going to have a discussion.
“Right now we have this fabulous, wonderful staff at the Park Board, but nobody is a civil engineer and we’d be going into a conversation with the Met Council with their boatload of engineers,” she said.
Both Miller and Wielinski also asked the Met Council if it would help with funds, but said they did not get an answer. Baener said it would not be interested paying for work it has already done.
Wielinski emphasized the importance of the study because the Park Board is not sure the tunnel option is feasible and the Southwest LRT will be a major undertaking.
“The decision we’re making is going to affect people for a long, long time,” she said. “Investing upfront to do that is well worth our while.”
Commissioners Brad Bourn and Steffanie Musich abstained in the vote on the resolution to hire Brierley Associates. In an Oct. 1 meeting, Bourn and Musich were dissenting voices in a 5-2 vote on a resolution approving up to half a million dollars for the study.
Bourn echoed his earlier concerns on the speed of the board’s decision to pursue the study without a committee process, but other commissioners were adamant on the resolution’s timing and the amount of public input.
“They’d have to be living under a rock not to know,” Wielinski said.
Musich was interested in if disrupting the Kenilworth channel was inevitable because an aging timber bridge would have to replaced at the site regardless of the channel crossing’s design.
Rather than looking at options without any environmental disruption, Ringold said the study would look at what alternative would have the least impact, whether it would come through construction, such as a new bridge, or long-term effects to the channel.
Commissioner Jon Olson said the Met Council should have done this work a while ago, but the board has a long history of run-ins with various groups on transit projects. He told fellow board members to “put the future of the park system at the forefront” and move forward with the study, despite its cost.
“Sometimes there are difficult votes,” Olson said. “You’re a park commissioner, and your job is to stand up for the park system.”