The Southwest Corridor light rail once seemed like a done deal. The elected leaders of more than a million metro residents approved its route after years of planning and the federal government gave it the green light.

Then the project ran into opposition from determined activists in St. Louis Park and Minneapolis who have spent money and influence on campaigns with rhetoric that sometimes obscures their own interests.

At a rally along the shore of Cedar Lake in Minneapolis, a speaker asserted that they were fighting to prevent a wooded corridor popular with bikers “from being destroyed” by light rail.

At a rally in St. Louis Park, another speaker insisted that rerouting freight trains near a school to make way for the light rail would “throw children under the train.”

The activists say they like light-rail transit and support running it from Minneapolis to the southwest suburbs. But they reject plans to locate either freight trains or light rail in their neighborhoods to make it happen.

With public relations campaigns and threatening lawsuits, they have forced planners to go back to the drawing board and contemplate changes that would dramatically drive up costs of the project.

Its price tag — rising from $1.25 billion to as high as $1.82 billion — drew opposition last week from government officials who must soon decide whether to fund 30 percent of it.

“It’s coming time to … balance resources with neighborhood discomfort,” said Mike Opat, a Hennepin County commissioner who criticized spending to appease some residents. “We’d love to do a big public works project and have no one affected; that’s clearly not going to be the case here.”

Invoking child safety

Concerns arose last year after an environmental analysis said a couple hundred St. Louis Park homes might experience increased noise or vibration if freight trains were rerouted to the suburb from the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis to make room for LRT. The reroute would double or triple freight traffic on existing St. Louis Park tracks and potentially increase the speed and length of trains.

The analysis said the benefits of the LRT project for the Twin Cities outweighed its drawbacks. But some St. Louis Park residents who live or work near the planned freight reroute argued dramatically that the additional freight created a safety hazard.

“How will you feel when the first student is killed … and those cars, after the first derailment, spill into the back yards of the homes of people living along the tracks?” Sharon Lehrman asked elected officials at a public hearing. “Will you be able to sleep at night?”

Opponents threatened legal action and seized on the opinion of the Twin Cities and Western Railroad, which declared the curves and grades of the St. Louis Park track unsafe for the additional traffic.

So the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project, designed new freight routes for St. Louis Park costing $200 million that include berms as high as two stories to straighten the curves and smooth grades.

It satisfied the railroad’s concerns about safety.

But it still didn’t quiet some St. Louis Park residents. A group that calls itself Safety in the Park said a berm would create a “Berlin Wall” in the suburb and run too close to schools.

At a rally this month, about 100 people stood next to a playground in St. Louis Park where one berm would run.

“If it derails, it’s going to come this way,” Frank Freedman announced. Others held banners calling the spot “ground zero.”

“It is ‘safer’ to literally throw children under the train than to try to keep the train as far away as possible” from the school, complained Kathryn Kottke.

Not everyone in St. Louis Park buys the safety argument.

“People are using children as a way to enforce their point because they’re trying to protect their economic interests,” said St. Louis Park resident Greg Hannon.

He points out that some of the more vocal opponents live near the tracks where the additional trains would be routed. The back yard of Jami LaPray, a leader of Safety in the Park, faces the freight tracks. She denied his claim about economic interests. “Safety has always been paramount,” she said.

Hannon favors a reroute because he lives in a condo next to tracks that currently handle the freight trains that would be moved to make room for LRT tracks.

“When a freight train goes by … we can feel the vibration,” he said. “If we just had LRT and not freight trains, our unit’s going to become more attractive.”

“I’m trying to protect the same thing — trying to protect my investment,” he said.

‘Not in my back yard’?

Moving freight traffic out of the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis — a wooded area between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles — became an issue because the city years ago made it a condition for accepting the LRT there. It’s surrounded by some of the wealthier neighborhoods in the city.

But many of those residents were accustomed to the freight traffic and never wanted more frequent LRT trains in the corridor. After St. Louis Park residents balked at taking the freight, the Minneapolis residents offered to keep it if the Met Council built a 1.4-mile-long subway tunnel to hide the LRT in Kenilworth. The agency said the tunnel would cost $330 million.

At a recent rally at Cedar Lake, Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Frank Hornstein, Minneapolis DFLers who chair transportation committees, told 100 people that they talked to Gov. Mark Dayton and got an encouraging reaction.

“I don’t think the Met Council or the governor would be moving or even considering other options but for all of the great organizing you’re doing,” Hornstein told the crowd. “This makes a huge difference. The entire debate has shifted.”

Lee Lynch, the retired founder of Carmichael Lynch advertising agency who lives near Cedar Lake, encouraged people at the rally to contribute to a “Kenilworth litigation fund” to fight for the tunnel. Advocates have hired former Hennepin County Attorney Tom Johnson to press their case.

Proponents of hiding light rail in a tunnel through the Kenilworth corridor assert that having it running above ground next to freight would crowd the narrow corridor, require moving a portion of an adjacent bike trail and damage a parklike atmosphere.

“We will not allow the Kenilworth corridor to be destroyed,” said Stuart Chazin, who organized the rally and leads the Kenilworth Preservation Group.

“It is … hard to understand how the city would agree to a plan to build a light-rail corridor through one of the most peaceful environments already developed for bikers and walkers,” the group says on its website. “It is important that particular attention be paid to the ramifications to the environment, wildlife and visual aesthetics.”

The group rejected a shorter, cut-and-cover tunnel that costs half as much, saying it would harm the environment.

But much of the support for a longer tunnel comes from people with a property interest. Signs demanding the tunnel “to protect our trails, homes and beautiful community” are particularly prominent outside homes whose back yards would face the future LRT line.

Last week, Opat questioned why the Met Council was paying so much attention to “a relative few” Minneapolis residents.

And at the rally, one woman asked, “How do we make this into the metro issue that it really is? I’m very concerned if this is perceived as a NIMBY — not in my back yard — we will have lost our message entirely.”