The Federal Transit Administration released a long-awaited document examining the Southwest Light Rail Transit project’s potential environmental impact Friday.
Publication of the final environmental impact statement, or FEIS, is one of the last remaining hurdles for Metropolitan Council before the agency can begin construction on the $1.79-billion light rail line. SWLRT will extend the Green Line connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul another 14-and-a-half miles to Eden Prairie.
But it’s not the only hurdle, and maybe not even the tallest.
At the state capitol, legislators have only until May 23 to come up with a plan to cover the state’s remaining $135-million share in the project, and there appears to be a significant gap remaining between Democratic and Republican transportation priorities. If the current session adjourns without a plan, the Met Council has warned, it could put in jeopardy the $895 million in federal funding expected to pay for half of the state’s largest-ever transportation project.
Meanwhile, Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis, a citizens’ group representing residents who live close to SWLRT’s planned route through the city, is suing Met Council in federal court. The group aims to halt the project, arguing Met Council leap-frogged required environmental steps when it settled on a route that slices through Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor.
The Met Council’s SWLRT website was overwhelmed by attempts to download the 17,000-page FEIS Friday morning. Physical copies of the report are also available at Minneapolis City Hall, Minneapolis Central Library, Walker Public Library, Linden Hills Public Library, Sumner Public Library, Franklin Public Library and at various public buildings in other cities along the route.
A draft EIS was originally released in 2012 and then updated in 2015 to include a supplemental EIS after several changes to the plan for SWLRT, including co-location of freight and light rail in the Kenilworth Corridor. The final EIS reflects even more changes made by project planners in response to the nearly 1,200 comments submitted by residents and local governments in response to the previous environmental reports.
For the Kenilworth Corridor, where trains will dive into a half-mile tunnel below freight tracks and an existing bicycle and pedestrian trail, Met Council planners have proposed new steps to mitigate vibrations from passing trains. The narrow corridor is hemmed in on its south end by condominiums and townhomes — some with foundations just feet from the planned tunnel — and residents who have experienced already damage from pile-driving at a nearby construction site have raised concerns about how the trains will impact both their quality of life and the structural integrity of their homes.
According to the Met Council, vibrations will be minimized with the use of “resilient track fasteners.”
Part of the FEIS is a review of its potential impact on historic sites and areas under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. SWLRT was found to have an adverse impact on the Grand Rounds Historic District, both in the form of noise and visual impacts to the channel linking Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles, which light rail trains will cross on a new bridge.
Met Council proposes to mitigate the noise impacts through sound-dampening measures, including rail dampers and a parapet wall on the bridge. It also plans to work with the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office to design the bridge with elements from other historic bridges in the Grand Rounds.
The FEIS also includes the financing plan for the project, a history of all the alternatives to the current route considered by Met Council and both the previously submitted comments and responses to those comments by Met Council planners.
Publication of the FEIS kicks off a 31-day public comment period. Comments can be submitted to Met Council through June 13.
Release of the FEIS isn’t, however, the final step in the environmental review process.
Before Met Council can apply to receive the federal funding that is expected to cover half of construction costs, it must get a sign-off from both the state and the FTA. Those will come only after comments on the FEIS have been reviewed, in the form of a Minnesota State Adequacy Determination and a Federal Record of Decision.