The Southwest Corridor light-rail project won a major victory last week, but now its supporters will learn whether Minneapolis will play spoiler.
To entice Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and the City Council to drop their opposition, Southwest supporters plan to offer new development around future Minneapolis light-rail stops and plenty of construction jobs, and to agree to explore bus and even streetcar links to the rail stations. So far, Minneapolis has resisted deals. Just a month ago, its City Council unanimously opposed a plan to spend $160 million to hide the light-rail line in tunnels to satisfy homeowners concerned about the noise and sight of trains running at ground level.
But cracks began to appear in that resistance last week after the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project, approved the tunnel plan as part of the $1.68 billion project. Now it goes to Minneapolis for its consent.
“It would be tough to vote no,” said newly elected Council Member Blong Yang, who represents part of north Minneapolis. “To reject Southwest LRT, I would definitely catch some negativity.”
The project could force Minneapolis officials to choose between their declared support for mass transit and influential Kenilworth corridor homeowners who object to the Southwest line running near their property.
“It is not clear that the general transit needs of the city have advocates who can match the heat generated by particular neighborhood interests on this issue,” said Carleton College political science Prof. Steven Schier.
Still, other Minneapolis City Council members who voted against the tunnels in March now say they’re keeping an open mind as they prepare to examine details of the project over the next couple of months.
The Southwest Corridor, the biggest transit project in the Twin Cities, is designed to run nearly 16 miles from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, passing through St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka. The federal government is expected to pay half the cost. Five metro counties will pay 40 percent, and the state is expected to kick in 10 percent.
But a fight over the tunnels and whether to reroute freight trains out of the Kenilworth corridor delayed the project last fall, increasing costs and pushing back the opening from 2018 to 2019.
Spotlight on Minneapolis
Southwest supporters are pressing for consent by the end of June from Minneapolis and the other four cities along the proposed route to meet a deadline imposed by the metro counties that are helping bankroll the project.
They have threatened to shift future funding to other transit projects if the deadline isn’t met.
Met Council officials say the agency has the power to push ahead without consent, but chairwoman Susan Haigh said she “cannot imagine” building the project without Minneapolis’ support. State law requires the Met Council and the five cities to hold public hearings on the plan in May.
A city that rejects it must offer alternatives, setting off negotiations with the agency.
But informal talks between the agency and the city are likely to begin in the next couple of weeks.
“It’s time to get the parties in the room together … and see what it is we can work out as an agreement to move the project forward,” said Met Council member Adam Duininck, who chairs the agency’s Transportation Committee.
“If the Met Council wants to have a conversation with Mayor Hodges, she’s open to having a conversation,” said Hodges’ spokeswoman, Kate Brickman. “She definitely cannot support this package as it stands today.”
Residents of the affluent Kenilworth corridor have criticized the Southwest route as not designed to serve poorer communities in north Minneapolis.
But some community groups in north Minneapolis came out last week in support of the project and called on Minneapolis to push for guarantees of high-quality bus service and development at three Minneapolis stations.
Duininck said he expects bus connections from the stations to the North Side to be on the front burner in discussions with the city. He said redeveloping areas around the stations “could be helped” by the Met Council and Hennepin County.
Open to talks
Yang said he doesn’t know how he’ll ultimately vote on the Southwest plan, but added, “Nothing’s ruled out at this point.”
“We have to just ask ourselves, ‘What’s going to be best for Minneapolis moving forward?’ ” he said. “If the … tunnels are what we get, then we have to make a tough decision on whether we want that or not.”
He said redeveloping areas near the stations and guaranteeing good bus service to his North Side constituents “would be very important” in reaching a decision. Yang also said it “would be tough” to turn away the federal funding available for the project.
New Council Member Lisa Bender, whose ward includes Uptown, also is undecided. She expects the City Council to initially deny consent, leading to some offers and perhaps guarantees, and is “very hopeful” of reaching a deal.
“I think improving transit access … to the Southwest light rail would absolutely help the city be able to support the proposal,” Bender said. “Enhanced transit connections are definitely part of what I will look at when I make my final decision.”
She’s been a supporter of streetcars on Nicollet to Central avenues and transit along the Midtown Greenway and Lake Street that could link the Hiawatha line with the future Southwest line.
But Yang and some members of the Met Council aren’t enthusiastic about streetcars, regarding them as inefficient and costly.
Duininck said there’s no Met Council money earmarked for streetcars, but the agency could commit to include streetcars in its long-range transit plans that would help the city get federal funding.
The City Council also is expected to face pressure from organized labor. Dan McConnell, business manager of the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council, said he will meet with city officials to tout potential construction jobs.
And the Met Council has set a goal of hiring minorities for 32 percent of the work, a target some City Council members will find appealing.
The two tunnels planned for the Kenilworth corridor could prove divisive for the City Council. Planners offered them as an alternative to running 220 light-rail trains a day at ground level past homes in the hope of buying support from Minneapolis, but it hasn’t succeeded.
So some metro officials involved in the plan suggest shaving $55 million to $60 million off the project’s cost by digging a tunnel in the south end of the corridor but not the north.
“If it really is there to help get the votes to make this line happen … then I’d consider keeping it in,” Hopkins City Council Member Cheryl Youakim said of the north tunnel.
Eliminating the north tunnel would put trains at ground level longer.
But it also would allow a light-rail station to be built at 21st Street that could be reached by Franklin Avenue buses.
“There are communities along Franklin Avenue that really want to see a connection,” Bender said. “That was the only way they were going to be able to access the train.”