How Minneapolis accepted Southwest Corridor light-rail deal

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 12, 2014 - 6:41 AM

Prodded by a mediator, Minneapolis officials agreed to the light-rail route with promises of money for improvements.

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A view of the Kenilworth corridor neighborhood, where the Southwest light-rail line is proposed to run in Minneapolis.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider , Star Tribune

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Minneapolis officials long insisted they wouldn’t stomach a light-rail line next to freight tracks in a part of the city popular with bicyclists, hikers and canoeists.

But with no palatable alternatives and time running out for action, they agreed to just that.

The Southwest Corridor light-rail deal accepted this week by city negotiators and Mayor Betsy Hodges sacrifices the interests of a small and well-connected group of opponents for promises to make the line more accessible and appealing to other Minneapolis residents. The City Council is expected to vote on it in late August.

Final approval would keep the Southwest project, the most expensive transit venture in the Twin Cities at $1.6 billion, on track to win federal approval this fall to advance in competition for funding. The nearly 16-mile line would run from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

The deal emerged from six closed-door sessions — some of them heated — between city officials and regional transit planners that got off to a slow start when the city advanced a transportation agenda beyond the scope of the Southwest project.

A participant said the turning point came when retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, who was mediating the talks, suggested the city agree to scrap a light-rail tunnel planned north of a water channel in the Kenilworth corridor and use the savings to restore a Minneapolis station and improve access and amenities to other stations. A light-rail tunnel would still be built south of the channel.

It wasn’t an entirely new idea. Suburban officials, who were at odds with Minneapolis on the project, had raised it in the spring.

Funding the extras

“Once the mediator suggested it, I think that helped us get a resolution,” recalled Adam Duininck, a member of the Metropolitan Council, the agency planning the project, who was at the table during negotiations. “That helped the city get comfortable with it as an idea.”

“When they walked through some of the things they wanted — the station improvements and other things — it became evident what they needed was some money to help fund these things,” Duininck said. “It was the mediator who said, ‘You know, one of the ideas could be to take out the northern tunnel, that would free up some resources.’ ”

“That’s kind of how we ended up heading down that path,” he said.

Boylan declined to comment on the mediation talks. “I promised confidentiality on my part and even giving some background might be viewed as a breach of my promise,” he said in an e-mail.

Resistance slowly eroded

The deal earmarks $30 million to finance pedestrian bridge and bike access to three light-rail stations on the near North Side, a demand of community leaders there; better access to a station at Lake Street; restoring the station in the Kenilworth corridor at 21st Street, and improved landscaping, guardrails and noise abatement.

Running the light rail at ground level north of the channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake won’t please Kenilworth corridor residents who have fought that concept as well as the earlier plan for a tunnel north of the channel.

The residents had the support of Hodges and City Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents the Kenwood and Kenilworth area. They had insisted on moving the freight trains out of the corridor to make way for the light rail.

But the Minneapolis resistance gradually eroded in the face of some hard realities.

Some of the opposition in the corridor softened this year when residents of condos and townhouses south of the channel and closest to the proposed light-rail track accepted a Met Council plan for hiding it in a tunnel past their homes.

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