Above: The location of the proposed Penn stop along the Southwest light rail line, looking toward downtown Minneapolis.
The last local approval needed for the Southwest light rail project fell into place Friday morning with a vote from the Minneapolis City Council.
The council voted 10 to 3 to approve municipal consent after nearly an hour of speeches, many of them critical of the project's route, its impact on the environment and the lack of urban bus amenities.
The $1.6 billion line, expected to open in 2019, would run from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis. Click here to take a ground-level tour of the Minneapolis stops. Half of the funding is expected to come from the federal government.
The 'no' votes came from Council Members Barb Johnson, Cam Gordon and Lisa Goodman. “This route fails to serve densely populated areas of Minneapolis and ignores areas of transit-dependence in favor of suburban commuters," Goodman said.
Several council members highlighted the lack of an updated environmental impact statement, which may fuel a lawsuit filed by project opponents. Council Member Andrew Johnson said he was confident the environmental impact will be minimal.
“If I believed that there was a serious threat to the water, the ground water or the chain of lakes, I would emphatically be voting no today," Johnson said.
Council Member Jacob Frey said while the routing is flawed, the line has benefits for the city. "It reinforces Minneapolis and specifically the downtown where I represent as the center of our region," said Frey, who represents part of downtown. "Even if this is only a high-speed rail from the suburbs to the downtown, that piece does help our downtown."
Others highlighted the lack of investment in amenities serving the core of the region's transit system: local buses. A recent Star Tribune analysis showed that many bus stops that qualify for shelters nonetheless lack them.
Council Member Elizabeth Glidden highlighted the recent unveiling of a proposed $8.7 million pedestrian bridge for light rail passengers would be built beside the new Vikings stadium. It has not yet been approved by the Met Council.
"I kind of question the prioritization of that announcement when we have also just had released a report that talks about the need to better invest in the core of the bus service and the amenities and the shelters and security around those," Glidden said.
She added of the Southwest line, however: "We’re also operating in a reality that this is a regional project. We didn’t choose this route, but we are part of a region.”
Because many of the Minneapolis stops are hard to access, the city fought for $30 million in pedestrian improvements to encourage more ridership. They also reached a deal to ensure public ownership of the corridor, which is expected to reduce the chances that more freight traffic or more dangerous cargo will travel there.
Council Member Cam Gordon said the process is flawed since the federal government has a draft of the environmental review that the council cannot see. He could have voted yes, he said, had the freight been relocated to St. Louis Park -- a shallow tunnel was built instead to accommodate both modes along the light rail route. He emphasized that he supports light rail, however.
"I think we have to move much more quickly in showing preferences to non-automotive traffic in our region and our city," Gordon said. "We spent decades and decades and decades building for cars, giving preference for cars, giving subsidies to people who have their automobiles and want to drive them. And it’s time we start offering some incentives and subsidies to people who want to be auto-free.”
Here is an overview of some of the comments made during Friday's deliberations: