Minneapolis is growing increasingly isolated in the fight over the future of the Southwest Corridor as the light-rail project approaches a crucial showdown.
An exchange at a meeting of metro leaders last week underscored the growing division between other communities along the route and the state’s largest city, which worries about disruption during construction of light-rail tunnels in the Kenilworth corridor.
“Does the budget include buying people out if they do not want to stay through that?” Peter Wagenius, the policy aide to Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, asked at the gathering of officials from cities along the route.
The answer: No special treatment for Minneapolis.
Hopkins City Council Member Cheryl Youakim called the Minneapolis question “odd” and said all communities along the nearly 16-mile route would be affected during construction.
Long at odds with other communities over the project, Minneapolis — run by DFLers who’ve declared support for light rail — now threatens to stand alone in opposing the Twin Cities’ largest transit project in a critical vote on Wednesday by a panel of metro leaders. Their recommendation will go to the Metropolitan Council, the agency in charge of the project, which is expected to decide April 9 on a plan. The agency is required under state law to seek consent of the cities along the line, but it has signaled it could push the project forward without it.
Wrangling over the project has resulted in delays and design changes that have driven its cost to between $1.6 billion and $1.8 billion.
Minneapolis is insisting that freight trains be rerouted from its Kenilworth recreational corridor to St. Louis Park as a condition for accepting light rail in the corridor. But St. Louis Park doesn’t want the freight trains, and Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie — the other suburbs along the future line — appear to be allies.
They lean toward keeping the freight trains in the Kenilworth corridor and digging a tunnel or tunnels there for the light rail near the freight tracks and under bike and pedestrian trails.
City, suburban friction
Residents of the Kenilworth area, some of them influential DFLers, have campaigned to reroute the freight or block the light rail. Last September, former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak cast the lone vote against digging light-rail tunnels on either side of a water channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake with the light rail crossing a bridge over the channel. Rybak said planners hadn’t exhausted possibilities for rerouting the freight or adequately studied the potential impact of the tunnels on the channel or lakes.
The Met Council last fall hired a consultant who confirmed an earlier study showing the tunnels could be built without harming the water.
Minneapolis then seized on a new freight study that concluded the trains could be rerouted safely.
The city’s insistence on a freight reroute is rooted in its belief that St. Louis Park in the late 1990s promised to take the freight in exchange for funding to clean up an industrial site.
St. Louis Park and the Twin Cities & Western Railroad counter that they never committed to the reroute and that changes in railroad industry practices now make it impractical. The metro leaders last fall rejected a freight reroute in voting for the tunnels.
Undaunted, Minneapolis three weeks ago passed a resolution opposing the tunnels and renewing its call for a freight reroute. Hodges, appearing at a meeting of metro leaders, suggested that the $20 million to $25 million estimate for acquiring right of way for the reroute was too high.
“How are those numbers calculated?” she asked. “If I’m going to make a decision on this, I’m going to want more information on that.”
She pressed for more detailed engineering of a reroute, but the approach didn’t catch on with others at the meeting. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the difference in the costs of rerouting the freight or digging two tunnels is insignificant.
“Plus or minus 15 million bucks on a deal like this … I don’t think that’s a relative factor,” he said, adding that more engineering work on a freight reroute would only delay the project without producing useful information.
If any tunnel is built, the Kenilworth corridor is likely to see more disruption than elsewhere along the construction zone where light-rail tracks would be built at ground level. Wagenius said residents in the corridor worry about the noise and turmoil that would be caused by digging one or more tunnels for light rail under existing recreation trails.
While some Kenilworth residents favor tunnels that would be bored from underground to minimize disruption, the tunnels under consideration would be cut from above in sections and covered up, with the trails restored over them. That process would take a year or more.
Minneapolis says an option to dig a single tunnel extending under the water channel hasn’t been adequately studied but would be more disruptive. That more expensive option, offered two weeks ago by the Met Council, also has drawn criticism from officials from St. Louis Park and elsewhere.
Some of the more vocal opponents of the light-rail plan have back yards that run alongside the recreation trails.
When Wagenius asked about buyouts, Southwest project engineer Jim Alexander replied: “We do not have any allocation for purchasing property. We do not have any need for taking homes … in this area.”
“What about people who are willing to stay during construction impacts but their property values diminish?” Wagenius asked.
Alexander said that the project would survey the area before beginning work and that “if there are things that occur because of construction, we’ll have to rectify that.” A spokesman for the project later said there is no budget to compensate for loss of property value.
Minnetonka Mayor Terry Schneider told other metro leaders that residents in his community also would face construction turmoil. “
That’s just the reality,” he said. “They have to put up with it. They’ll benefit from it in the long term, but they don’t get compensated for their property value or inconvenience.”