Despite snags, Southwest light-rail line clears a milestone

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 30, 2014 - 6:33 AM

The controversial line was approved by the Minneapolis City Council in a 10-3 vote.

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The Minneapolis City Council voted 10-3 to approve the Southwest light-rail project. Mayor Betsy Hodges, right, talked with Council President Barb Johnson, who voted against the project.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE • gstubbe@startribune.com,

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Minneapolis has granted final approval to a new light-rail line that will carry passengers between Eden Prairie and the heart of downtown, ending months of bitter debate and backroom negotiations.

“I think it’s great news and exciting news for the region to see a project of regional significance finally meet the goal of getting [local approvals],” said Metropolitan Council Member Adam Duininck. “Now it’s on to the next phase of the process.”

The Minneapolis City Council on Friday approved the $1.6 billion line 10-3 after an hour of discussion largely critical of the line. The project has been under consideration since the 1980s, and supporters say it will transform the region’s transit system when it opens in 2019.

But any jubilation about the vote was quickly clouded by neighbors of the proposed line threatening to file a lawsuit after the council decided to approve the plan before knowing the full environmental impact.

Tom Johnson, an attorney for the Lakes and Parks Alliance, said the group’s board of directors will make a decision soon on whether to sue.In two weeks, the Met Council will notify the federal government that it has received all local approvals and most of the local funding commitments needed. Half the costs of the Southwest light-rail line are expected to be covered by the federal government. This fall they will surpass 30 percent completion of the engineering and design process, a significant milestone for the project.

“When complete, it will improve many thousands of lives from Eden Prairie to north Minneapolis,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement Friday. “It will create new jobs, reduce highway congestion, and better connect Minnesotans to one another.”Supporters at Minneapolis City Hall did not express much enthusiasm about the line, however. Most of the Minneapolis stops outside of downtown are located along a sparsely populated freight corridor. The train’s passage through the Chain of Lakes, beside freight tracks, will require the construction of a much-criticized shallow tunnel. The city fought unsuccessfully to have the freight rerouted to St. Louis Park.

‘Part of a region’

“We’re … operating in a reality that this is a regional project,” Council Member Elizabeth Glidden said. “We didn’t choose this route, but we are part of a region.”

Others were more critical. “This route fails to serve densely populated areas of Minneapolis and ignores areas of transit-dependence in favor of suburban commuters,” said Council Member Lisa Goodman, one of three council members to vote against approval.

Goodman also highlighted the lack of an updated environmental review examining the impacts of the shallow tunnel. Critics say the city has no right to approve the project until it reviews the updated environmental critique, which is expected to be released in 2015.

Met Council spokeswoman Meredith Vadis said Friday that work on the project will not be halted by a lawsuit, unless ordered by a court.

She added that the Legislature does not require the environmental review to be complete before municipal consent. But if the new review’s findings require substantial changes to the plan, Vadis said, “the [Met] Council would have to seek further municipal consent as appropriate under state statute.”

Council Member Andrew Johnson was confident that the impact on the lakes would be minimal after speaking with officials at the local watershed district.

“If I believed that there was a serious threat to the water, the groundwater or the Chain of Lakes, I would emphatically be voting no today,” Johnson said.

Many on the City Council juxtaposed the major investment in the rail line with the difficulty of obtaining basic improvements to the urban bus system, such as installing shelters at qualifying stops. A recent Star Tribune analysis showed that many stops that qualify for shelters nonetheless lack them.

“We’re not getting the fair shake of the dollars that we’re putting in,” said Council President Barb Johnson, who voted no.

After mediated negotiations, the city won $30 million in pedestrian improvements to encourage use of the line. It wanted, but did not achieve, the unilateral addition of language including streetcars into the region’s transportation plan, according to a June 25 letter from Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh to Mayor Betsy Hodges.

Several Minneapolis leaders have said they want more assurances the line will be accompanied by bus connections and additional bus shelters on the North Side.

Hodges said the Met Council’s responses so far have been inadequate. “The Met Council characterized this as an equity train,” Hodges said. “But that is beyond inaccurate.”

The Bottineau line

Before capping the long and complicated process toward local approval of the Southwest line, city leaders were already contemplating how to improve the next proposed light-rail line: the Bottineau Blue line extension to the northern suburbs. Plans to run the line through the heart of north Minneapolis through Penn Avenue were abandoned for a route that follows Olson Hwy. into Theodore Wirth Park.

“We need to work right now proactively to make sure that that process is fair to the environment, is fair to the experience of our park users,” Council Member Andrew Johnson said.

Council Member Blong Yang, who represents part of north Minneapolis, said the impact to Wirth Park is one reason he is not very supportive of the current Bottineau alignment.

“Running a train on Penn Avenue would be a much better option and it would hit a lot more people and it would serve a lot more people,” Yang said.

 

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

Twitter: @StribRoper

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