Deadlines loom for $1.68 billion Southwest light-rail project

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 12, 2014 - 8:54 PM

Minneapolis has yet to schedule a public hearing.

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A view of the Kenilworth corridor neighborhood, where the Southwest light-rail line is proposed to run in Minneapolis. Deadlines for the line are coming up quickly.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider , Star Tribune

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As deadlines loom for the $1.68 billion Southwest Corridor light-rail project, concern is growing that Minneapolis hasn’t scheduled a public hearing needed to move it forward.

The four other cities along the future light-rail route have already held hearings — a step required before cities can vote on the plans within the next month.

Hopkins City Council Member Cheryl Youakim said she’d like assurances that Minneapolis will hold a hearing soon “so we can keep the project on track.” At a recent gathering of metro leaders, Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens also questioned a Minneapolis official about the city’s plans for a hearing.

The Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project, has cited state law in setting a July 14 deadline for a vote on the project by the cities and Hennepin County. A spokeswoman for Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said this week that the city will hold a hearing in time to meet the deadline for that vote on whether to grant consent.

“I’m not sure why one hasn’t been scheduled,” said spokeswoman Kate Brickman.

The concerns are heightened by the fact that the Minneapolis City Council earlier this year came out against plans for the project, siding with homeowners in the Kenilworth corridor neighborhood who opposed running the light rail in tunnels near their homes and existing freight train tracks. Members of the City Council and the Met Council are now negotiating a possible compromise with a retired judge acting as a mediator.

“The timetable for the city’s review and action on that consent is entirely the responsibility of Minneapolis officials,” said Matt Swenson, press secretary for Gov. Mark Dayton. “However, the governor believes public hearings are critically important to allow Minneapolis residents to present their views on the decision.”

Minnetonka Mayor Terry Schneider said assurances by Minneapolis that it will hold a hearing by July 14 stopped short of satisfying suburban officials supporting the plan.

“I would have liked to [know] what the exact process is,” Schneider said. “Everybody would be more comfortable if they knew everything was falling into place.”

The Southwest is the most expensive transit project in the Twin Cities. The state and local governments have already spent $30 million on it, with most coming from five metro counties that use special sales taxes to bankroll transit. That group last winter set its own June 30 deadline for the cities and Hennepin County to agree on Southwest plans or risk losing future funding to other transit projects. The group is expected next week to extend its deadline to July 14 because plans went to the cities later than anticipated.

The Southwest project has been delayed nearly a year over disputes with Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, which opposed an alternate plan to reroute freight trains in its community.

Advocates press city

The Minneapolis City Council is being urged to push forward with the Southwest line by labor unions, a key DFL constituency.

“It may not be the line you like, but it’s the next step,” said Dan McConnell, business manager for Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council. “We can probably put some ornaments on the Christmas tree … but this is kind of the deal.”

“We got to figure out a way to get it done,” he said.

The Southwest plan also has the support of the city’s downtown business interests, who see the line as a plus for the local economy. Their leaders have recently met with Hodges and council members to make their case for the project.

“I certainly felt like the response from the mayor, as recently as yesterday, and council members we visited with, was, ‘We’ve got our concerns, but we recognize the importance of finding a solution,’ ” Steve Cramer, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, said Wednesday.

“So I walked away from those meetings feeling ­encouraged about the ultimate outcome,” Cramer said.

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