If you’re scratching your head over the news that the city of Minneapolis and the Met Council have hired a retired federal judge to mediate the issue of municipal consent for Southwest light rail (SWLRT), you’re not alone. Mediating between government officials of the same party is quite unprecedented and calls into question what exactly the city wants, given that it has lost the battle to remove freight rail from Kenilworth.
Minneapolis has a right to be aggrieved, of course. It was Hennepin County’s screw-up — assuming that a plan for a little-studied freight-rail reroute remained viable 20 years after it was developed. The Metropolitan Council has not managed the inherited process in a way that inspired confidence, either. All these are symptoms of the disjointed way the region plans transit “starts.” That system needs to be improved, but a solution offers no solace to Minneapolis.
Still, there is too much on the line for the city to deny municipal consent for the rail project. No one I’ve talked to believes the new Minneapolis leadership corps wears blinders so large as to lose the capacity to see the project’s upside. SWLRT’s benefits are too great for downtown Minneapolis and for city residents needing access to suburban jobs.
Insiders have theorized that Minneapolis’s negotiating game is to extract additional funds from the SWLRT project — to enhance bus service to feed inner-city residents to the line, for station area improvements, or to leverage dollars for a Nicollet Avenue streetcar. City leaders have stayed mum.
Beyond the question of what Minneapolis wants, it has to come to terms with the prospect of years of tunneling in Kenilworth and its implications. There are explanations city officials owe residents regarding the choices and options at hand. Here are three essential ones:
• Why did the city allow the Met Council to select the tunnel option it deemed worst? At crunch time, the city declined to engage the Met Council, which defaulted to the shallow-tunnels plan, which has been vociferously decried by city officials, both staff and elected. The plan requires four massive masonry portals in Kenilworth that will disrupt the landscape. It creates substantial noise pollution at the Cedar Lake channel, where trains will emerge from and re-enter the portals every five minutes. It renders moot a station at 21st Street, which would have the benefit of slowing trains and reducing noise. And it risks a lawsuit from the Minneapolis Park Board, which is on record asserting its dominion over the space and disliking the plan.
• What is the purpose of the northern tunnel? Several area mayors and public officials are on record asking why the ($60 million) northern tunnel is still in SWLRT plans. Unlike the southern tunnel, it does not exist to save homes in a right-of-way pinch point. As best as anyone can divine, the northern tunnel exists to mollify a handful of assertive, connected neighbors who believe it is the obligation of taxpayers to insulate them from the train even though the corridor was designated for rail long before most took up residence.
They insisted that SWLRT be rerouted from near their homes to serve ostensibly mobility impoverished neighborhoods elsewhere in the city. Failing that, they demanded a tunnel that would eliminate the station (21st Street) that would serve connections from the city’s Phillips and Powderhorn neighborhoods, a stated jobs-access priority for the city’s Native American community.
I cannot think of a local public-works effort that has been rigged to benefit so few at the expense of so many (some would say sports stadia, but I digress). Taxpayers and stakeholders in SWLRT should examine this question carefully, especially in light of Mayor Betsy Hodges’ stated emphasis on equity.
• Why has the city ignored the best tunnel option? Late in the game, the Met Council offered a single-tunnel option that stayed below the Kenilworth channel, but without the expense and logistical challenges raised by the rejected deep tunnel. This tunnel would preserve the 21st Street Station and likely inoculate the project against Park Board lawsuits. It would vastly reduce noise and structural pollution in the corridor.
It would cost a minimum of $30 million more than the shallow tunnels, and construction disruption would be longer, but it would provide the neighborhood and broader community with the best ratio of benefit to risk. Oddly, the proposal died a silent death, the city claiming it was not serious (an assertion without basis, I would add).
The Met Council has already allocated $160 million to bury LRT in Kenilworth and might spend more. The city views the millions as a risky half-measure that won’t even deliver the benefits of the status quo. The rest of the region views those dollars as an extravagance to protect a politically sensitive bike trail. Both are accurate. Officials I spoke to around the region are not prepared to support any substantial additional spending for SWLRT, and some are eager to take a scalpel to its budget.
But Minneapolis retains leverage and options. The city owes residents some clarity on what it is negotiating for.
Adam Platt is a resident of the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis and executive editor of Twin Cities Business magazine.