For Minneapolis, Southwest LRT hits deal or no-deal time

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 13, 2014 - 6:31 AM
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Susan Haigh, chair of the Metropolitan Council, left, listened to comments by council member Gary Cunningham before she called for a vote on the Southwest Corridor light-rail project.

Photo: JEFF WHEELER• jeff.wheeler@startribune.com,

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The Southwest Corridor light-rail project won a major victory last week, but now its supporters will learn whether Minneapolis will play spoiler.

To entice Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and the City Council to drop their opposition, Southwest supporters plan to offer new development around future Minneapolis light-rail stops and plenty of construction jobs, and to agree to explore bus and even streetcar links to the rail stations. So far, Minneapolis has resisted deals. Just a month ago, its City Council unanimously opposed a plan to spend $160 million to hide the light-rail line in tunnels to satisfy homeowners concerned about the noise and sight of trains running at ground level.

But cracks began to appear in that resistance last week after the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project, approved the tunnel plan as part of the $1.68 billion project. Now it goes to Minneapolis for its consent.

“It would be tough to vote no,” said newly elected Council Member Blong Yang, who represents part of north Minneapolis. “To reject Southwest LRT, I would definitely catch some negativity.”

The project could force Minneapolis officials to choose between their declared support for mass transit and influential Kenilworth corridor homeowners who object to the Southwest line running near their property.

“It is not clear that the general transit needs of the city have advocates who can match the heat generated by particular neighborhood interests on this issue,” said Carleton College political science Prof. Steven Schier.

Still, other Minneapolis City Council members who voted against the tunnels in March now say they’re keeping an open mind as they prepare to examine details of the project over the next couple of months.

The Southwest Corridor, the biggest transit project in the Twin Cities, is designed to run nearly 16 miles from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, passing through St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka. The federal government is expected to pay half the cost. Five metro counties will pay 40 percent, and the state is expected to kick in 10 percent.

But a fight over the tunnels and whether to reroute freight trains out of the Kenilworth corridor delayed the project last fall, increasing costs and pushing back the opening from 2018 to 2019.

Spotlight on Minneapolis

Southwest supporters are pressing for consent by the end of June from Minneapolis and the other four cities along the proposed route to meet a deadline imposed by the metro counties that are helping bankroll the project.

They have threatened to shift future funding to other transit projects if the deadline isn’t met.

Met Council officials say the agency has the power to push ahead without consent, but chairwoman Susan Haigh said she “cannot imagine” building the project without Minneapolis’ support. State law requires the Met Council and the five cities to hold public hearings on the plan in May.

A city that rejects it must offer alternatives, setting off negotiations with the agency.

But informal talks between the agency and the city are likely to begin in the next couple of weeks.

“It’s time to get the parties in the room together … and see what it is we can work out as an agreement to move the project forward,” said Met Council member Adam Duininck, who chairs the agency’s Transportation Committee.

“If the Met Council wants to have a conversation with Mayor Hodges, she’s open to having a conversation,” said Hodges’ spokeswoman, Kate Brickman. “She definitely cannot support this package as it stands today.”

Residents of the affluent Kenilworth corridor have criticized the Southwest route as not designed to serve poorer communities in north Minneapolis.

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