35W noise walls cause clamor in southeast Minneapolis

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 13, 2011 - 11:09 PM

Residents say there are flaws in voting process for I-35W option.

People who live near a Minneapolis freeway project get to vote on whether they want noise walls, but some who don't want the walls complain the election is rigged.

Those making the most noise say the walls will spoil their views of fireworks on the Mississippi River and the city skyline, not to mention attract criminals and graffiti artists. But the biggest of their objections seems to be the way the election is set up -- in particular, the provision that those who don't vote will be counted as votes in favor of the $5 million, 20-foot-high walls.

"There's very upset neighborhoods," said Wendy Menken, who heads the Southeast Como neighborhood group.

A special meeting has been scheduled for Wednesday evening to answer questions, and voting on the proposed walls has been extended.

"It's why government gets a bad name sometimes," said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, whose office is publicizing the 7 p.m. meeting at Logan Park .

The overall project includes a new S. 4th Street entrance to northbound Interstate 35W on the downtown side of the Mississippi. The northbound auxiliary lane will be built within the freeway's current limits to relieve congestion and was on the city's highway improvements wish list along with reconstruction of the 35W bridge over the river.

The affected neighborhoods are Marcy Holmes and Southeast Como in southeast Minneapolis and Beltrami in northeast Minneapolis. The walls would stretch along a new freeway lane for much of the length between SE. 4th and NE. Johnson Streets.

Although Hennepin County is the lead agency on the lane project, the state is the manager for getting the project bid.

Federal rules require noise barriers be considered for certain improvements, but the state goes beyond the federal standards. If the state's study calls for barriers, then a vote must be held, basically to give residents a chance to veto the walls.

In the process set up by the state, votes are weighted by how close a home is to the freeway and the household type --a fraternity with dozens of residents gets two votes, while a fourplex could get five. The wall gets built if the weighted votes against it don't reach 50 percent.

Not voting is counted as a favorable vote.

"That's totally outrageous to me," said state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who represents part of the area. Given the controversy over the walls, she and McLaughlin say the public can ill afford the $5 million the walls would add to the project if built.

Only 52 of the 180 eligible property owners most affected by possible noise had voted by last Friday. The original deadline was Dec. 1, but it's been extended to allow ballots postmarked by Friday. There are six wall segments, and for one adjoining the freeway in Southeast Como, only one ballot has been cast out of 25 eligible properties.

That doesn't surprise Menken. She blames the state for a muddled process. "None of our constituency even knew about it," she said of the voting. Absentee landlords and students who will move after college likely won't care about the walls, neighborhood leaders said.

People in Southeast Como prize their views of the downtown skyline and riverfront fireworks, Menken said, and fear they will be obscured by the proposed 20-foot walls.

Other residents raise different objections. Arvonne Fraser, who has lived next to the freeway for 30 years, said the neighborhood group in Marcy Holmes, for which she is vice president, has called for a covered freeway, like a portion of 35W in Duluth. She fears a wall will block her view southeast across the freeway, and she would miss the trees that line the trenched freeway. The wall could encourage crime along a walkway connecting her street to a nearby pedestrian overpass, she said.

She said the mailing of ballots was poorly timed, with students focused on finals and other residents on the holidays. "It looked like junk mail. I'm sure it was just thrown away by some people," Fraser said.

Peter Wasko, the state's metro area supervisor for noise and air quality, said the Department of Transportation hasn't experienced such a reaction before. He said that the process could be improved by adding a second open house to focus just on noise impacts, after an initial open house is held to explain the project.

Menken, who is deeply skeptical of highway officials, said she'd like to see the voting hit a minimum participation rate of 50 percent. "It goes to 'Do you meet the letter of the law regarding community involvement or the spirit of the law?'" she said.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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