The Metropolitan Council on Wednesday approved a $1.6 billion agreement with Minneapolis that could trigger a new debate between the city and suburbs over who is getting a better deal from the Southwest Corridor light rail project.
Signs already are emerging of another rift between Minneapolis and suburbs along the nearly 16-mile route. At a meeting of metro leaders, officials from Hopkins, St. Louis Park and Eden Prairie questioned a provision committing up to $30 million for improvements in Minneapolis.
In so many words, the suburbs asked: “Where’s mine?”
With the approval of all but an absent member of the Met Council, the agency overseeing the project, the stage is set for the Minneapolis City Council to take final action on the deal Aug. 29, although a vote could be delayed until late September.
“We have been working at this for a long time,” said Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh. “I feel very, very good about this project.”
Met Council Member Adam Duininck, who helped broker the deal, said, “This process has been a long and arduous one, but I do believe today we’re at a point where the project is in the best place it can possibly be.”
Council Member Gary Cunningham, who is married to Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, opposed an earlier Southwest plan, as did the mayor. He called his vote Wednesday for the latest version “most difficult” because of the opposition of some residents.
The deal calls for eliminating one of two light rail tunnels in the Kenilworth corridor, an area popular with bikers and pedestrians, running the light rail above ground north of a water channel and restoring a station that had been trimmed from previous plans.
But two other provisions sparked controversy. One involves efforts to maintain public ownership of railroad tracks in the corridor. The other commits $30 million in savings from scratching the one tunnel for building pedestrian and bike access to Minneapolis stations, enhancing the parklike environment of the corridor after light rail construction and other light rail improvements.
Some officials of suburbs along the route questioned that spending, noting that their communities were told they couldn’t get guarantees for desired features and must rely on the discretion of the Met Council to approve contingency funds.
St. Louis Park Council Member Jake Spano said his community also agreed to trim some costs from the line, but when they asked the Met Council if they could use the savings elsewhere, “We were informed, no, you can’t, that money goes back in the hopper and everybody gets to compete for it.”
Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens asked what would happen if there is no contingency money left for the improvements the suburbs want.
“Does that mean that we … get nothing and Minneapolis gets $30 million?” Tyra-Lukens asked.
But Haigh said the commitment to Minneapolis was needed after plans to reroute freight from the Kenilworth corridor into St. Louis Park were scrapped in favor of keeping it in the corridor and running light rail nearby.
Peter Wagenius, policy aide to Hodges, said the city doesn’t consider the elements as extras but necessary to compensate for the presence of freight near the light rail.
The Met Council’s chief light rail developer, Mark Fuhrmann, said the commitment to Minneapolis could lessen the demand on the contingency funds and thus leave more available for the suburbs.
The Met Council and the metro leaders on the Southwest Corridor Management Committee also approved a resolution expressing support for continued public ownership of Kenilworth corridor land where the freight tracks run, hoping such control will reduce the likelihood of freight traffic worsening.
But Spano and Hopkins City Council Member Cheryl Youakim voted against the resolution because of concerns that it might allow Minneapolis to limit the volume and type of freight that could run in the corridor and force the traffic into other communities.