Over the protests of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, a group of metro leaders Wednesday endorsed sinking the region's biggest light-rail line in tunnels in the Kenilworth recreational corridor and rejected her claim that the project won't benefit the city.
The 11-2 vote came minutes after Hodges denounced the plan as "a fundamental failure of fairness" to her constituents — an assertion one metro leader from Minneapolis said was "just astounding."
If the decision is approved next week by the agency overseeing the Southwest Corridor light-rail project, it will trigger negotiations to determine whether there is room for compromise with Minneapolis or if the city will threaten to play spoiler on the project.
One after another, mayors and other leaders of communities along the nearly 16-mile light-rail route praised and defended the project.
"It's a game changer for our region that wants to be competitive not only nationally but globally," said Edina Mayor Jim Hovland.
The vote confirmed widespread support last October for hiding the light rail in tunnels to fit the tracks into the narrow corridor along with freight trains and bike and running trails. That recommendation was put on hold by Gov. Mark Dayton after Minneapolis objected and demanded more studies of its impact and alternatives.
The results of those studies — which delayed the project at the cost of at least $45 million — didn't change the minds of metro leaders Wednesday. The only other no vote came from Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, but it wasn't in support of Minneapolis.
Look said the $1.68 billion price tag for the project is too high because of the tunnels; he favors moving the trails to make room for the transit at ground level — another option opposed by Minneapolis.
Hours of testimony
The Southwest light rail is designed to run between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, passing through St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka. Delays and design changes have pushed back its opening from 2018 to 2019. The Metropolitan Council, the agency in charge of the project, must seek the consent of cities along the route but has left open the possibility of pushing forward with the plan if it doesn't get it.
The tunnels, each about a half-mile long, would straddle a water channel in the corridor between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. The light rail would emerge from the tunnels to cross a bridge over the channel. It's an alternative to rerouting freight trains from the corridor into St. Louis Park to make way for the light rail at ground level in the corridor, a move favored by Minneapolis but opposed by St. Louis Park.
Before Wednesday's vote, the metro leaders heard hours of testimony from scores of people for or against the tunnel plan. They included influential DFLers from the Kenilworth corridor neighborhood whose back yards run up to the recreation trails.
Jim Smart, who has held fundraisers for DFLers, said the light rail should be built elsewhere if the freight can't be rerouted or Minneapolis "should withhold municipal consent."
David Lilly deplored retaining walls and other elements of the light-rail tunnel construction and quoted a line from singer Joni Mitchell's song, Big Yellow Taxi: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."
But the officials also heard from numerous supporters of the project. Ahmed Jama, who lives in Eden Prairie, said the Southwest line would benefit Somali immigrants in that community.
Debate with Minneapolis
Hodges repeated a Minneapolis claim that the Met Council, county and local officials ignored promises made 16 years ago to reroute the freight to St. Louis Park in exchange for the city accepting the light rail in the corridor. The claim is disputed by St. Louis Park, and Hovland said, "We can't wish for a better past. We've got the past we've got."
The Minneapolis mayor told other leaders that St. Louis Park succeeded in staving off the freight reroute despite a recent consultant's study saying it would be safe and efficient, leaving the freight in Minneapolis with the future light rail.
"What you are asking me to do right now on behalf of Minneapolis is to lose on absolutely everything we cared about," she told the leaders. "Asking Minneapolis to lose everything is something I won't say yes to."
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a Minneapolis resident, replied, "I find it just astounding the statement from the mayor that Minneapolis is losing on everything. There's going to be a line that is going to bring thousands and thousands of people into Minneapolis."
"To say that Minneapolis has lost everything that they care about fails to keep an eye on what the real prize is here," he said.