Louise Erdrich: Southwest commuter rail

  • Article by: LOUISE ERDRICH
  • Updated: August 12, 2013 - 4:31 PM

Some bad ideas have momentum because federal funds are on the line. But this area has a better legacy to protect.

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The Kennilworth Trail alongside a current freight train track that has been a proposal site for the Southwest Corridor light rail line in St. Louis Park.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Inertia has gotten me into lots of trouble. Not the sort of inertia where I am matter at rest tending to remain at rest. That keeps me out of hot water. I’m talking about the other kind of inertia — where I just can’t stop because I started something, where I keep going because to turn back would mean all my effort was a waste. I’ve written whole books that way. They are sitting in plastic tubs in my basement — rejects, but harmless rejects.

My inertia books are not going to create the sound and the fury that the Southwest light-rail transit route currently under consideration has aroused. That’s because, after 40 years of writing, I can admit when I’ve got a stinker on my hands.

This particular SWLRT process began with reasonable options like routing the rails adjacent to or on centerline piers within a highway corridor. That idea was rejected by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Yet this is the preferred way to locate express transit rails in many cities, including Chicago. But maybe we didn’t need express transit.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak proposed running the route through the Midtown corridor, which has gained so much in population that his idea now seems even more sensible than in 2006. Maybe he thought we needed a route that would serve the city and its people.

There were further proposals to follow the Midtown corridor — rejected by the Southwest Alternatives Analysis committee because of the cost of relocating utilities on 10th Street.

One last proposal seemed the path of least resistance — after all, it just involved relocating people by kicking them out of their houses, rerouting freight rails to pass through the pretty streets of St. Louis Park, ruining a cherished greenway system, disrupting precious city beaches, and now proposing fixes like deep tunnels or vast berms that inflate the original costs, already outrageous, by hundreds of millions.

All this for a plan now much worse than all the previous ideas, and with far fewer potential riders.

People will argue with my squeezing down the long dollar-sucking parade of expert opinion and desperate logic this way. But let me squeeze it down even farther into what all that really is: forward motion inertia. A law of physics gleaned from personal observation is that bad planning increases acceleration when federal funding is offered.

What is really at stake is much, much larger than those dollars. Minneapolis is one of the most beautiful and livable cities in the world. As a small bookstore owner in the vicinity of a SWLRT proposed stop, I might realize a plus for Birchbark Books — an increase in traffic.

I live far enough away from the present rail system that I get nostalgic when the wind carries the faint bleat of freight train whistles. So this could be a win for my own back yard. But the thing I take personally about all of this is the identity of the city I have come to love.

Our chain of lakes is celebrated. Our parks, even beaches, free to all. Our bicycle trails and wandering paths give us extraordinary distinction. The SWLRT proposal would utterly disrupt and probably destroy a regional jewel, the Kenilworth Trail, a connector vital to the Cedar Lake Trail — the first federally designated bike highway — which had at least 620,000 users in 2012, likely up to a million, including suburban bicycle commuters. It has been built, maintained and improved by more than 20 years of selfless citizen efforts.

This loving care of the physical world is something I am proud our city fosters. People come to our bookstore from all over the world. They say, “You don’t know what you have.”

Charles Loring, Theodore Wirth, Horace Cleveland and other visionaries of the late-19th-century city did know. They looked forward a hundred years and worked to preserve for Minneapolis a relationship with nature rarely equaled in other urban settings. Let’s do what they did.

Loring believed that the people of Minneapolis should be able to “walk in the shade of a fine tree without having to pay for the privilege of seeing a piece of natural woods.” In a heavily industrial age, Cleveland fought ardently to preserve access to natural beauty for working people. He struggled to make the city “a work of art.” Let’s continue their fight.

Forward inertia is hard to stop. But when a plan snarls so badly that it makes no sense, and then starts eating at our legacy, it is time to summon the courage to go back to square one.

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Louise Erdrich is owner of Birchbark Books. Her most recent book is “The Round House.”

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