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With concerns, council panel gives initial SWLRT consent

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: August 28, 2014 - 10:54 AM

Above: Downtown Minneapolis as seen from the proposed Van White station on the Southwest light rail.

The final municipal approval needed for Southwest light rail is around the corner at Minneapolis City Hall following a key panel vote on Wednesday morning.

With reservations about the wisdom of the line and its impact on the city's lakes, the City Council's transportation and public works committee voted 4-2 in favor of the line's basic design. The full council will take a final vote Friday morning on the $1.6 billion line, which runs from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis.

Also on Wednesday morning, the full council approved two agreements aimed at preserving public control over the rail corridor. Those are intended to limit the possibility of freight traffic increasing or carrying more dangerous cargo by maintaining an existing agreement with Twin Cities & Western Railroad Company.

Some council members expressed concern about taking the vote prior to the completion of an updated environmental impact statement, expected in January 2015. The council instructed the city engineer and attorney to monitor the progress of the report and present them with any legal options necessary to protect the city's environmental assets.

“I’ve been concerned with regards to not having the [new environmental impact statement], and not having a chance to review that before we make this decision," said Council Member Blong Yang. 

The city attorney, Susan Segal, said the council has a clear deadline to provide municipal consent for the project -- August 30. “Whether or not the environmental review is required prior to consent is an issue that may well ultimately be resolved by the courts," Segal said, alluding to possible lawsuits over the line.

Yang and Council Member Cam Gordon were the lone ‘no’ votes on municipal consent. Gordon said it is significant that freight rail was not relocated from the corridor, adding that he has concerns about the impact on adjacent bikeways and the Chain of Lakes.

“I think what we’re getting is kind of an incomplete product and we’re also getting a different product than what we made committments for when we agreed to this alignment,” Gordon said.

Council Member Lisa Bender said the routing of the line – which travels from the suburbs through an urban freight corridor – illustrates the need for bus connections in the city. See a ground-level view of each stop here. But despite the problems with routing, she added it is better than having no regional transit system whatsoever.

“We are building a regional transit system that serves suburban commuters over urban neighborhoods,” Bender said. “That is just a fact.”

The accompanying improvements to urban core transit was also a focus of Mayor Betsy Hodges, who said the Met Council had not done enough to respond to activists calling for bus connections, better shelters and other amenities.

The Met Council did respond to those concerns with an overview of their “equity initiatives,” but Hodges said it wasn’t enough. “The response on equity from the Met Council has been disappointing at best,” Hodges said. “They have made many agreements to process and they have made no agreements to outcome, thusfar.”

Asked later what specifically she would like to see, Hodges cited firmer commitments about bus frequency and shelters with amenities. “How many and where?” Hodges said of the shelters. “And are they heated?”

UPDATE: Metropolitan Council Member Adam Duininck sent this reponse to the mayor's comments:

"I disagree with the mayor's characterization of Met Council's response on equity issues. Not only have we made significant progress on other regional issues, we responded with real progress on shelters, serious engagement of community groups and riders, and when the timing is right we will improve access to SWLRT to all residents of Minneapolis. That's what building a transit system is all about."

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