What’s making news in Minneapolis, reported by the Star Tribune’s team of city reporters. Send news tips to baird.helgeson@startribune.com.

Reopening parkway could take much of 2015

Posted by: Steve Brandt under Politics and government, Public safety Updated: August 29, 2014 - 6:48 PM

The closure of W. River Parkway near the University of Minnesota is likely to continue well into next year, according to a recommendation made Friday as heavy rain pelted down on the same unstable hillside that collapsed two months earlier.

The recommendation to hire an engineering consultant to oversee a permanent repair notes that the firm, Barr Engineering, is urging that no construction occur in the winter months when fluctuating temperatures will send groundwater in the hillside through a freeze-thaw cycle. A Park Board staff memo said that construction to repair the hillside would most likely start in spring.

The proposed contract for up to $640,000 with Barr goes before park commissioners for a vote on Wednesday. That covers further investigation into the conditions at the collapse site, designing a repair, and overseeing construction.

The total cost of dealing with the collapse, including construction, is estimated at about $6 million, according to Bruce Chamberlain, an assistant parks superintendent. Chamberlain said the Park Board would likely pay about three-quarters of the cost, with Fairview-University Medical Center covering the rest. Park officials said they are planning on federal disaster aid flowing from the heavy June rains eventually  reimbursing 75 percent of the project's cost, and hope that the state legislature will cover the balance.

The June 19 hillside collapse closed the parkway near S. 4th Street, blocking use of the parkway by an estimated 6,900 vehicles and almost 1,000 bikers a day, according to the staff memo. Although temporary measures have been installed, Chamberlain said park officials have decided not to reopen the parkway until they're confident it is stable enough not to collapse again.

"I'm going to head down there right now and see what we've got," Chamberlain said after heavy late afternoon rain on Friday.

The temorary measures include an impervious fabric to shield the hillside from the impact of further rain, and the diversion of storm water that flows from the hospital area away from the hill.    

Minneapolis provides final local consent for Southwest light rail

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: August 29, 2014 - 12:30 PM

Above: The location of the proposed Penn stop along the Southwest light rail line, looking toward downtown Minneapolis.

The last local approval needed for the Southwest light rail project fell into place Friday morning with a vote from the Minneapolis City Council.

The council voted 10 to 3 to approve municipal consent after nearly an hour of speeches, many of them critical of the project's route, its impact on the environment and the lack of urban bus amenities.

The $1.6 billion line, expected to open in 2019, would run from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis. Click here to take a ground-level tour of the Minneapolis stops. Half of the funding is expected to come from the federal government.

The 'no' votes came from Council Members Barb Johnson, Cam Gordon and Lisa Goodman. “This route fails to serve densely populated areas of Minneapolis and ignores areas of transit-dependence in favor of suburban commuters," Goodman said.

Several council members highlighted the lack of an updated environmental impact statement, which may fuel a lawsuit filed by project opponents. Council Member Andrew Johnson said he was confident the environmental impact will be minimal.

“If I believed that there was a serious threat to the water, the ground water or the chain of lakes, I would emphatically be voting no today," Johnson said.

Council Member Jacob Frey said while the routing is flawed, the line has benefits for the city. "It reinforces Minneapolis and specifically the downtown where I represent as the center of our region," said Frey, who represents part of downtown. "Even if this is only a high-speed rail from the suburbs to the downtown, that piece does help our downtown."

Others highlighted the lack of investment in amenities serving the core of the region's transit system: local buses. A recent Star Tribune analysis showed that many bus stops that qualify for shelters nonetheless lack them.

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden highlighted the recent unveiling of a proposed $8.7 million pedestrian bridge for light rail passengers would be built beside the new Vikings stadium. It has not yet been approved by the Met Council.

"I kind of question the prioritization of that announcement when we have also just had released a report that talks about the need to better invest in the core of the bus service and the amenities and the shelters and security around those," Glidden said.

She added of the Southwest line, however: "We’re also operating in a reality that this is a regional project. We didn’t choose this route, but we are part of a region.”

Because many of the Minneapolis stops are hard to access, the city fought for $30 million in pedestrian improvements to encourage more ridership. They also reached a deal to ensure public ownership of the corridor, which is expected to reduce the chances that more freight traffic or more dangerous cargo will travel there.

Council Member Cam Gordon said the process is flawed since the federal government has a draft of the environmental review that the council cannot see. He could have voted yes, he said, had the fright been relocated to St. Louis Park -- a shallow tunnel was built instead to accommodate both modes along the light rail route. He emphasized that he supports light rail, however.

"I think we have to move much more quickly in showing preferences to non-automotive traffic in our region and our city," Gordon said. "We spent decades and decades and decades building for cars, giving preference for cars, giving subsidies to people who have their automobiles and want to drive them. And it’s time we start offering some incentives and subsidies to people who want to be auto-free.”

Here is an overview of some of the comments made during Friday's deliberations:

More details emerge about Hodges budget proposal

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: August 29, 2014 - 3:03 PM

The mayor’s office released the first details Wednesday night about what is driving their proposed 2.4 percent levy increase, and precisely what it will mean for taxpayers.

The tax levy is a dollar amount the city collects through property taxes. Since it is not a tax rate, the impact on individual homeowners depends on changes to the tax base and individual home values.

The mayor’s proposed 2.4 percent increase aims to raise $6.7 million more in property taxes, bringing the city’s total levy to $288 million (see below). Almost all of that increase, $6.6 million, will be consumed by additional debt payments primarily relating to R.T. Rybak’s five-year accelerated street paving program, according to an overview presented to the city's levy-setting Board of Estimate and Taxation Wednesday.

A 4.9 percent, $2.4 million levy increase from the Park Board also contributed heavily to the mayor’s proposal. In fact, the amount of property taxes supporting the general fund, which fuels the city’s discretionary spending, will actually decrease by $2.3 million or 1.5 percent.

Total city spending, which includes dedicated funds for water and other services, will rise 4.8 percent in Hodges’ budget to $1.18 billion. That excludes department-to-department transfers.

So how will it feel for homeowners?

Nearly 57 percent of residential properties in the city will see an decrease in their property tax bills, with the remaining 43 percent seeing an increase, according to an analysis presented to the Board.

One additional cost will be felt equally, however: A $48 hike in solid waste utility fees due largely to the mayor’s proposed organics recycling program (see "Solid Waste Recycling" below). That’s a 17 percent increase over 2014 costs. The program will cost about $8 million to administer in its first year, said Sandy Christensen, the city’s deputy financial officer.

A home worth $240,000 in 2014, growing 5 percent in value next year, would see a 2.3 percent reduction in property taxes – which would be offset by the new garbage fees. Use the tool below to see the impact on different homes.

A big reason why fewer than half of homeowners will see rate increases is that the city’s tax capacity is expected to grow by nearly 10 percent by 2015. A lot of that is due to apartments, which are slated to shoot up a whopping 21 percent in value during that time period.

Apartments now shoulder a 2 percent larger slice of the city’s tax base, 19.3 percent, than they did before. THe mayor's spokeswoman, Kate Brickman, said it is difficult to discern how much of that isattributable to new properties, versus the increasing value of existing ones. About three-quarters of the tax base is still derived from residential and commercial properties.

As for how the money will be spent, much of that will be outlined in the budget book that has not yet been released. The new department breakdowns anticipate a 3.9 percent funding increase for the police department, a 1.5 percent increase for the fire department and a 4.4 percent increase for the health department.

Much of that extra funding is expected to fund new recruits in the police and fire departments, as well as more youth support and health inspections in the health department. Hodges highlighted other initiatives in her budget speech. See the full overview by department below.

The mayor’s budget is subject to approval by the City Council, which will review it for the first time at a budget committee hearing on September 8.

Also on Wednesday night, Hodges jabbed back at a Board of Estimate and Taxation member, Carol Becker, who had complained that the full budget was not yet available. Hodges pulled out a stack of budget books from the 1990s, when Becker worked in the budget office, to show that they were delivered later during that period.

The video is below. Becker responds at 52:49:

Protected bike lanes in both 26/28th concepts

Posted by: Steve Brandt under Parks and recreation, People and neighborhoods, Politics and government, Public safety, Transportation, Bikes and cars, Urban living Updated: August 28, 2014 - 3:19 PM

Minneapolis stands a good bet to get its lengthiest protected bike lane by far with both concept designs unveiled for a paired set of one-way crosstown streets proposing physically separated lanes between cars and bikes.

The designs for next year’s planned repaving of E. 26th and 28th Streets differ mainly in whether each street gets a one-way protected bike lane or whether a two-way lane is installed on 26th. Both rely on drivers giving up one of their current lanes.

The designs presented to the community Wednesday night are intended to slow speeders and to better protect people on foot and bikes.  Bikers now largely eschew the twin streets in favor of the Midtown Greenway and residential streets, according to traffic counts.

“These streets are dangerous and we need safety improvements immediately,” said Council Member Alondra Cano, who represents the area slated to see repaving next year. A four-year-old pedestrian was  killed by a car along 26th near Stewart Park two years ago at twilight.

The initial work next year would happen between Interstate 35W and Hiawatha Avenue. But it’s likely to influence any future repaving of the twin one-way streets as far west as Hennepin Avenue, according to transportation planners.

Protected bike lanes use curbs, metal bollards, parked cars, plastic pipes or planters to separate driving and biking lanes. They're the third generation of on-road bike lanes to be introduced in Minneapolis after the initial narrow painted lanes, and later buffered painted lanes about the width of a car lane.

The city’s first protected bike lane is a mere six blocks along 1st Avenue. N. downtown. Construction of a two-way set of protected lanes is expected any week now on an eight-block section of W. 36th St. east of Lake Calhoun. But the work on 26th and 28th would encompass more than 20 blocks.

The potential protected lanes on 26th and 28th are still some distance from a certainty.  Jon Wertjes, the city’s traffic director, said the next step is to factor in public feedback on the alternatives and put them through analysis of their impact on motorized traffic and cost.

Then things get political, since the City Council ultimately would approve layout changes, as well approve outside funding that Wertjes said would be necessary to pay the cost of bike lanes that are much costlier than extra-wide painted lanes, such as those installed when Portland and Park avenues were narrowed to two traffic lanes.

The city has earmarked $400,000 in 2015 to make biking or pedestrian improvements on the two streets when it strips a layer of old asphalt and repaves 26th while adding a thin layer of tar and rock chips to resurface 28th. Among the potential improvements for people on foot are intersection bumpouts to reduce the time and distance needed to cross the streets, and concrete islands to give them a refuge partway across a street.

But it’s the proposed reduction in the number of lanes that’s likely to provoke a backlash from some drivers.  Wertjes acknowledged that people who like to drive at more than the posted speed limit of 30 miles an hour “are going to be sorely disappointed” by the design concepts.

If a protected bike lane is added to each street, they would shrink in the Hiawatha-35W section from three continuous traffic lanes to two lanes, although a third lane would be available for intermittent stretches, subject to turn lane and parking needs. That’s also true on 26th if a two-way bike lane was added there, but 28th would maintain its current number of lanes under that scenario.

“This has a variety of positive impacts,” said Jose Luis Villasenor, who lives between 26th and 28th in the Phillips community. He said he hesitates to bike on the two streets with his three boys in a trailer and child seat. He said the proposed designs make the streets safer and promote biking among the area’s minority residents.

Why does 26th get the two-way bike lanes in that proposal?  Wertjes said one factor is that 26th serves some major destinations, including a medical complex and Wells Fargo’s operations in the old Honeywell campus. Another is that 26th is farther than 28th from another major biking facility, the Midtown Greenway.The city is also studying the feasibility of adding protected bike lanes on E. 24th St. or Franklin Avenue.

But the proposed design that installs two-way bike lanes on 26th was found lacking by Ethan Fawley executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, who said 28th should get at least a bike lane. Some bikers attending the open house said they’d like to see a more substantial barrier between cars and bikes than the lightweight plastic tubes the city has used in some spots. Wertjes said that the type of separation haven't been determined.

In the project's web site, comments favoring protecting bike lanes appeared to draw substantially more support than those from people opposing a lane reduction.

(Photos: Above -- the city's first protected bike lane on 1st Avenue N used parked cars to shield bikers; Right -- Another protected lane on the Plymouth Avenue Bridge uses liught plastic pipes to separate bike and driving lanes.  No decision on type of separation has been made for 26th and 28th streets.

With concerns, council panel gives initial SWLRT consent

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: August 28, 2014 - 10:54 AM

Above: Downtown Minneapolis as seen from the proposed Van White station on the Southwest light rail.

The final municipal approval needed for Southwest light rail is around the corner at Minneapolis City Hall following a key panel vote on Wednesday morning.

With reservations about the wisdom of the line and its impact on the city's lakes, the City Council's transportation and public works committee voted 4-2 in favor of the line's basic design. The full council will take a final vote Friday morning on the $1.6 billion line, which runs from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis.

Also on Wednesday morning, the full council approved two agreements aimed at preserving public control over the rail corridor. Those are intended to limit the possibility of freight traffic increasing or carrying more dangerous cargo by maintaining an existing agreement with Twin Cities & Western Railroad Company.

Some council members expressed concern about taking the vote prior to the completion of an updated environmental impact statement, expected in January 2015. The council instructed the city engineer and attorney to monitor the progress of the report and present them with any legal options necessary to protect the city's environmental assets.

“I’ve been concerned with regards to not having the [new environmental impact statement], and not having a chance to review that before we make this decision," said Council Member Blong Yang. 

The city attorney, Susan Segal, said the council has a clear deadline to provide municipal consent for the project -- August 30. “Whether or not the environmental review is required prior to consent is an issue that may well ultimately be resolved by the courts," Segal said, alluding to possible lawsuits over the line.

Yang and Council Member Cam Gordon were the lone ‘no’ votes on municipal consent. Gordon said it is significant that freight rail was not relocated from the corridor, adding that he has concerns about the impact on adjacent bikeways and the Chain of Lakes.

“I think what we’re getting is kind of an incomplete product and we’re also getting a different product than what we made committments for when we agreed to this alignment,” Gordon said.

Council Member Lisa Bender said the routing of the line – which travels from the suburbs through an urban freight corridor – illustrates the need for bus connections in the city. See a ground-level view of each stop here. But despite the problems with routing, she added it is better than having no regional transit system whatsoever.

“We are building a regional transit system that serves suburban commuters over urban neighborhoods,” Bender said. “That is just a fact.”

The accompanying improvements to urban core transit was also a focus of Mayor Betsy Hodges, who said the Met Council had not done enough to respond to activists calling for bus connections, better shelters and other amenities.

The Met Council did respond to those concerns with an overview of their “equity initiatives,” but Hodges said it wasn’t enough. “The response on equity from the Met Council has been disappointing at best,” Hodges said. “They have made many agreements to process and they have made no agreements to outcome, thusfar.”

Asked later what specifically she would like to see, Hodges cited firmer commitments about bus frequency and shelters with amenities. “How many and where?” Hodges said of the shelters. “And are they heated?”

UPDATE: Metropolitan Council Member Adam Duininck sent this reponse to the mayor's comments:

"I disagree with the mayor's characterization of Met Council's response on equity issues. Not only have we made significant progress on other regional issues, we responded with real progress on shelters, serious engagement of community groups and riders, and when the timing is right we will improve access to SWLRT to all residents of Minneapolis. That's what building a transit system is all about."

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