Fearing that the influx of oil trains through the Twin Cities may one day lead to catastrophe, legislators and residents met this week to discuss best methods for holding railroad companies accountable.
Adding to the urgency is a proposal to route oil trains through downtown Minneapolis and the northwest suburbs, multiplying the number of people who would be impacted by an accident. That plan involves diverting oil trains south from Crystal through Theodore Wirth Park.
Five legislators, a county commissioner, a MnDOT representative, Minneapolis' fire chief and two city council members attended the meeting at Theodore Wirth Chalet on Tuesday night.
Rep. Frank Horsntein, DFL-Minneapolis, noted that a number of oil trains have already derailed and exploded across the U.S. this year.
“This is not a hypothetical problem," Hornstein said. "We know that this is going to get worse as more oil comes across our region.”
Hornstein and others touted a number of bills related to rail safety working their way through the legislature this year. One clarifies that railroad companies cannot exercise eminent domain powers over Hennepin County land. Another would annually assess railroad companies to pay for improved rail crossing safety.
Several speakers noted that St. Louis pushed successfully to stop oil trains from traveling through the city.
“I hate to say that we want to follow St. Louis, but it looks as if that’s a good way to start," said Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis.
Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said his department would need additional help in the event of an oil train fire. He said he spoke with the St. Louis chief about how they pushed for a rerouting.
“He was very clear and told me it all started at this level right here," Fruetel said. "That it means a lot at the grassroots level for people to get organized.”
The Minnesota Department of Transportation recently estimated that about 326,000 residents live within the half-mile evacuation zone of oil trains -- half of them in the metro area. About six or seven oil trains pass through the Twin Cities every day, largely through the Como Park area, said MnDOT freight planner Dave Christianson. They also travel through parts of Northeast Minneapolis.
“If that oil train comes down Theodore Wirth Park, through Crystal and Robbinsdale and in downtown Minneapolis, we will increase the exposure in the state by 50,000 residents," Christianson said. "That doesn’t count the employees in downtown Minneapolis."
Christianson said the new connection -- intended to relieve rail congestion -- would mean about one and a half oil trains moving through downtown Minneapolis every day.
Gov. Mark Dayton sent a letter to the Surface Transportation Board last month requesting a full environmental impact statement on the proposed rerouting.
"This traffic would travel through downtown Minneapolis and residential communities that have not previously been exposed to such traffic," Dayton wrote.
Hennepin County recently spent $1.8 million to purchase a key parcel of land they hope will thwart the reroute plans.
Above: Flickr photo of Eataly Chicago from edenpictures
Updated at 9 p.m.
"No man's land” was among the phrases that that came to the mind of one City Council member Tuesday when asked to describe the area now envisioned for an MLS stadium.
The stadium aims to transform an area just west of Target Field that most people likely haven't visited, except for a weekend stop at the nearby Minneapolis Farmers Market. But its prominence is only likely to grow if a Southwest light rail station is built along Royalston Avenue.
Former UnitedHealth Group CEO Bill McGuire was mum on the details of the stadium plan Wednesday, but said the Farmers Market would play an integral role.
“We love the farmers market and we think there’s an inherent tie of the multi-cultural nature of that farmers market and soccer," McGuire said.
McGuire presented a more detailed plan, including renderings, to the Central Minnesota Vegetable Growers Association board on Monday night. The group runs the market, which operates on city-owned land.
Association spokeswoman Sandy Hill said his vision involved a modernized Farmers Market and an indoor restaurant concept beside the stadium similar to Eataly in Chigago – which would feed off food from the farmers market. It also included parking ramps, she said.
Above: A slideshow of the area around the proposed MLS stadium.
“It still had our three remaining sheds, but more glorified to fit with the modernness of the whole design," Hill said.
Whether they would request public help to build the stadium are ancillary development remained unclear Wednesday. “We haven’t decided how to do this yet," McGuire said.
Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Tom Bakk have already stated their opposition to public aid. Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, who has aided the effort, said their comments were premature.
“Some of the comments from other public officials are disappointing in that there hasn’t even been an ask yet and people are already suggesting that they’re unwilling to listen," Opat said. "Which I think is unfortunate.”
Mayor Betsy Hodges declined an interview about the project. She and council member Barb Johnson said in a joint statement that the announcement was exciting.
"We appreciate their willingness to invest in our city," the statement said. "As we have previously stated, we believe a new stadium would be best financed with private resources.”
Council Member Kevin Reich, who voted for the Vikings stadium, said the city had initially assumed MLS would go to the Vikings stadium.
“I guess it’s an OK site," Reich said of the Farmers Market site. "I think they see some synergies with the farmers market. It’s certainly an area of town, kind of like what downtown east used to be, it’s kind of a no man’s land. Maybe this could revitalize it.”
By JESSICA LEE
The Minneapolis school board is planning its next steps in hiring a permanent superintendent, months after Bernadeia Johnson’s abrupt resignation in December.
Since her December announcement, school board members — most of whom are new to managing this type of hiring — have been mapping out their plan for permanently filling the position, which includes selecting a search firm and planning community engagement.
“It was a fairly unexpected resignation, so it’s not like we had a plan ‘B’ in our back pocket ready to whip out,” Board Chairwoman Jenny Arneson said. “We really needed to come together as a group.”
The board is wading through applications from search firms that would help the group with planning community events and facilitating the selection process. School officials are considering four bids right now, and it is potentially opening the application process again so it can review more.
The board is looking for a firm that has a successful history of working with diverse districts with active communities, similar to Minneapolis’. Members hope to finalize the pool of search consultants by the end of April, select one shortly after and work with the party for the following months.
At a full board meeting on Tuesday, members said they’d like to fill the position by the start of the 2015 school year, but the timeline is loose. Some board members said they don't want to leave open such a crucial leadership position for too long.
“I’m worried about our declining enrollment, I’m worried about our kids who aren’t making it,” Board Member Carla Bates said at the meeting. “We can’t go forward with our initiatives without a leader.”
While board members agreed that it’s important they move quickly with filling the position, many said they don’t want to rush the process. The main focus, some board members said, should be selecting the ideal candidate – not meeting deadlines.
Interim Superintendent Michael Goar, who formally served as the district’s chief executive officer, wants to keep the job permanently.
Board members said Goar is not a lock for the job and insisted they are conducting a wide search for the best candidate.
“This would be a lot of work if this was a forgone process,” Arneson said.
Jessica Lee is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.
A large backhoe began ripping apart a developer-owned duplex a block off of Lake of the Isles on Wednesday, erasing one of the longest-vacant homes in the city from a neighborhood that usually doesn't have them.
A crew from All-Metro Excavating began demolition of the 107-year-old duplex that developer Ross Fefercorn has owned for 16 years. It has been vacant for at least 10 years, and has been on the city's list of vacant building registration list since 2007. That extended period drew complaints from the property's East Isles neighbors.
Fefercorn told the Star Tribune last fall that he was debating whether to sell, rehab or raze the property at 2208 Irving Av. S., for which he paid he paid $360,000 in 1998. He said he bought the duplex with the idea that he might live there some day, but he ran into unforeseen structural problems after he began to gut it.
Fefercorn said via e-mail Wednesday that he was tied up in meetings and not immediately available for comment on future plans for the lot.
The house was a personal project for a developer who lives a few blocks away in the Wedge area. He's developed commercial and residential projects from north Minneapolis to Mendota Heights. They include single-family housing along the Humboldt Greenway and Track 29 apartments along the Midtown Greenway.
Neighbors complained to City Hall about the house, but city officials said the house was secure and its condition didn't warrant them ordering a demolition. The property drew complaints of unkempt vegetation, peeling paint and trash issues, attracting 22 inspection citations in 11 years.
Frustration over the property among neighbors boiled over at a East Isles Residents Associaiton meeting two years ago, where some neighbors suggested the city not approve any more deals for Fefercorn until the property was fixed up.
The city registration fee for boarded housing doubled Fefercorn's annual property tax for the property to $16,000. The city said that Fefercorn took steps toward demolishing the building in 2009 but didn;t folow through.
(Photo: Fefercorn at the site of the Track 29 housing in 2012. Staff photo by Bruce Bisping.)
A record eight Open Streets events featuring car-free streets will be held in Minneapolis in 2015, and they'll feature three first-time corridors and the first loop circuit.
But as the event is growing, so is the projected hit to taxpayers.
The fifth year of Open Streets will feature a loop route in northeast Minneapolis stretching between Central Avenue NE and NE 2nd Street. Parts of downtown, East Lake Street, and the University of Minnesota area will also get more complex routes that represent a departure from the event's typical segments of straight streets.
Open Streets events shut down a segment of one or more streets to motorized traffic, giving priority to people-powered transport by foot, bike or other wheeled means, such as wheelchairs or skateboards. The first Open Streets event in Minneapolis was held in 2011 on Lyndale Avenue S.
City departments will absorb an estimated $194,007 to put on the events this year, under a plan submitted to a City Council committee this week that drew some council questions Tuesday. That's up from $104,433 spent on six Open Streets events in 2014, a total that was 39 percent over the council-authorized estimate of $75,000.
That spending covers such city costs as signs to control detoured traffic, providing extra police. The estimated city cost is budgeted at an average $24,250 per event, compared with $17,400 in 2014. Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, which runs Open Streets, attributed that to more conservative budgeting, and also to more complex routes.
(Update: City spokesman Casper Hill said that one reason for the higher numbers is that more costs that departments absorbed in their 2014 budgets are being explicitly tracked in their budgets this year, such as event permit fees, food booth permit costs or amplified sournd permits. He said that the more complex routes on Lake Street and northeast Minneapolis require more traffic control workers. The university and downtown routes also involve hooding parking meters, Hill said.)
The coalition separately raises money for arts and music programming at the events by lining up paying sponsors from neighborhood and business associations, individual businesses, and nonprofit organizations.
Fawley justified the city spending by saying that the events build community, promote public health by active living, and allow police staffing the events to build community relations. He said that such events are common in larger cities, and that cities often run them themselves.
Areas that will get Open Streets for the first time are downtown, with a dogleg route connecting the warehouse district with the North Loop, East Lake Street with a detour over the Sabo bike bridge on the Midtown Greenway, and the university area, with a double-dogleg route connecting Dinkytown and Stadium Village.
Council Member Blong Yang noted that the city often makes organizations holding public events pay for city costs. However, Council Member Lisa Bender, a coalition founder, said, "The costs we are using are very minimal compared to the amount of money we spend to subsidize people to drive."
(Update: The city directly subsidizes some promotional events, rather than requiring departments to absorb them in their budgets. For example, the council approved in February sending $1 million to the Downtown Council to stage year-round programs, such as summer fireworks. Yang noted that other events, such as the North Side's Juneteenth celebration, don't get such breaks. He suggested in an interview that a more even-handed policy is needed. "We're picking winners and losers, and I'm not sure that's the right thing," he said.)
As a lame-duck council member in late 2013, Mayor Betsy Hodges offered a budget directive that told three city departments to subsidize Open Streets. Her spokeswoman, Kate Brickman, said that support represents the view that city streets are more than thoroughfares but also destinations.
"Through Open Streets, we choose to both celebrate and re-envision the city street itself as essential community space and a public asset to be enjoyed by all," Brickman said.
The coalition also requested that the city spend $15,000 for a reduced-scope Bike Week this spring, in lieu of federal grant support that helped pay for event costs previously. The event is intended to promote bicycle commuting. Department of Public Works representatives said that the amount will be taken from the budget for more durable pavement markings, which would reduce pedestrian safety markings at about five intersections, a tradeoff that Council Member Linea Palmisano questioned..
The council's Public Works Committee voted in favor of both the Open Streets and Bike Week proposals.
The planned events are Lyndale Avenue S., June 7; northeast Minneapolis, July 12; East Lake Street, Aug. 2; Franklin Avenue, Aug. 16; downtown, Aug. 23; Dinkytown-Stadium Village, Sept. 12; Nicollet Avenue S., Sept. 20; and Lowry Avenue N., Sept. 26.
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