Judge Denies Quick Ruling in SWLRT Lawsuit

The following article by Dylan Thomas was published in the August 5, 2015 issue of the Southwest Journal.

Judge Denies Quick Ruling in SWLRT Lawsuit

Judge Tunheim’s order expresses concerns about Met Council process

File photo

While expressing concern that the Southwest Light Rail Transit Project’s momentum could
make an ongoing environmental review essentially “meaningless,” a federal judge on Tuesday
denied a motion for a quick ruling in one of the lawsuits against the Metropolitan Council over project.

Last fall, Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis went to federal court to stop the project, arguing in a lawsuit that Met Council violated state and federal environmental rules by getting local approvals for SWLRT before completing a full environmental review for the transit project.

U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim found Met Council was abiding by state municipal consent laws, but wrote in his order that the agency was “dangerously close to impermissibly prejudicing the ongoing environmental review process.”

Tunheim writes that the key question in the case is whether Met Council has “irreversibly and irretrievably committed to a specific SWLRT route” before completing the environmental review. Although the project has gone through one round of local approvals known as municipal consent — and is about to go through another — Tunheim found the Met Council left just enough wiggle room “to back out and adopt a different route,” and so hadn’t violated federal environmental statutes.

The alliance’s members generally live near Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor. Its proximity to homes, lakes and parkland — as well as the presence of trails and freight rail already in the corridor — made it a highly controversial choice for SWLRT’s route through Minneapolis.

In a statement issued after the order, Met Council Regional Administrator Meredith Vadis, wrote: “The judge’s ruling acknowledges the Council’s position, which is that the environmental review and municipal consent processes are evolving as required by the circumstances. Having just received the ruling we need time to fully review it and have no further comment at this point.”

Reacting to the ruling Wednesday morning, Mary Pattock of Lakes and Parks Alliance said the “ball is still in play.”

“Essentially what (Tunheim) is saying is he’s still watching the case and, in my words, it’s not looking very good for the Met Council,” Pattock said.

She said the group’s leaders had not met with their attorneys since the ruling was issued Tuesday.

Tunheim had previously dismissed Lakes and Parks Alliance’s claims against the Federal Transit Administration in the case. He also denied a claim against Met Council under state environmental laws. But he denied Met Council’s motion to dismiss the portion of Lake and Parks Alliance’s lawsuit based on federal environmental law and state municipal consent statutes.

In the order, Tunheim describes what appears to be “a political and bureaucratic drumbeat has begun that will lead inexorably to exactly the choice the Met Council wants.”

“In other words, the Court remains concerned that the Met Council has done more than express a preferred alternative, and has ‘gone too far’ and has effectively committed itself to a specific route.”