Southwest light rail edges closer to final approval

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 20, 2014 - 6:30 AM

Advocates call for more bus improvements since the line will skirt population centers.

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"For this system to work for Minneapolis residents and not just for suburban commuters, we need safe, dignified and efficient transit connections,” said Council Member Lisa Bender, shown in a file photo.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Minneapolis leaders intensified demands for improved bus connections with the proposed Southwest light rail line Tuesday, seeking to ensure that the line benefits areas beyond the sparsely populated freight corridor it will follow into downtown.

A standing-room-only crowd packed into City Hall Tuesday night at a public hearing in preparation for a City Council vote later in August, the last local approval needed for the project. The Hennepin County Board approved the Minneapolis portion of the project hours before the city public hearing. The $1.6 billion plan would create a new light rail line from Eden Prairie to downtown, with five new stops in Minneapolis.

In July, the city fought successfully to improve pedestrian connections at those stops, which are largely disconnected from existing population centers. Some council members are now pushing for future bus connections, which are outside the immediate scope of the municipal consent process but part of the Metropolitan Council’s overall plan.

“The Southwest light rail line is an important transit connection, but it bypasses our city’s neighborhoods,” Council Member Lisa Bender said at a rally Tuesday morning. “And for this system to work for Minneapolis residents and not just for suburban commuters, we need safe, dignified and efficient transit connections.”

Tuesday’s hearing followed a similar one in July, held at a neighborhood center. A number of people raised concerns with the lack of an updated environmental impact statement. “Shouldn’t we have that information before we proceed with this process?” asked Council Member Blong Yang. Staff responded it wasn’t required by statute for municipal consent.

For months, Met Council planners, area residents and local leaders have sparred over the line’s proposed route through the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis. The latest plan calls for a single light-rail tunnel running south of the channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake in Minneapolis. The light rail would surface to cross the channel and continue north in the Kenilworth corridor. It has been approved by the five suburban communities served by the line.

Some testified that the proposed alignment of the line is illogical by avoiding many dense areas, while others said it would provide key employment connections. “Southwest light rail will provide access for the residents of north Minneapolis to jobs in the southwest suburbs or downtown Minneapolis,” said Bill McCarthy, president of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation.

A group of transit advocates who gathered outside City Hall on Tuesday said they want more specific commitments from the Met Council to improve bus service, build more bus shelters for poor communities, lower fares and rethink shelter requirements.

“Met Council Chairwoman Sue Haigh gave a commitment to racial and economic justice coming out of the Southwest light rail project. And we have yet to see that commitment,” said Caleb Murphy, a transit advocate with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.

Much of the disagreement surrounds the language in a Met Council overview of “equity initiatives” earlier in August, which NOC executive director Anthony Newby said they would like to be tougher. “What we’re asking for is some much stronger language that gives a deliberate commitment to address the disparities that exist along the line and a plan to fix it,” he said.

Meredith Vadis, a spokeswoman for the Met Council, said it is too early to be specific about route changes since transit service could be much different when the Southwest line is expected to open in 2019. She noted that bus routes were changed in conjunction with the Hiawatha and Central Corridor lines.

No buses currently connect the would-be stops with north Minneapolis, though routes 19, 5 and 22 pass north of the Royalston station. Pointing to those existing routes on a map, advocates on Tuesday chanted “Fill the gap in the map!”

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden said the Met Council should reconsider its bus shelter policy, which requires fewer riders to install a shelter at a suburban stop.

“Minneapolis, as well as St. Paul, we are the revenue generators for the bus system,” Glidden said during the rally. “And we need amenities that serve our populations well and better than they do today.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Hennepin County Board members voted 6-1 to give their consent to the Minneapolis portion of the line — having previously signed off on all the other components.

Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the GOP gubernatorial nominee, opposed the measure. “It’s not going to relieve congestion in any significant way,” he said.

Other board members have been mostly enthusiastic. Commissioner Peter McLaughlin called the vote a “huge step forward in the next generation of transit development.”

The commissioners also committed $165 million for the project at the Met Council’s behest. The county is committing — but not yet spending — the money to signal the region’s commitment to the line. The federal government is expected to pay half the cost of the project.

Before agreeing to the project, the county also signed off on a memorandum of understanding that attempts to ensure no additional freight travels in the Kenilworth corridor. County officials don’t want to own the land, but are supporting the city’s desire for public ownership in an effort to limit freight traffic.

In a related decision, the board voted to acknowledge the planned route for possible Minneapolis streetcars. McLaughlin said there was concern in Minneapolis that the county would deny future city streetcars access to a bridge on the route.

Board Chairman Mike Opat reiterated that county money should not be used on Minneapolis streetcars. Jeff Johnson called money for streetcars is a “preposterous waste.”

The City Council is expected to take its final vote on municipal consent Aug. 29.

 

Staff writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

Twitter: @StribRoper

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