Southwest Corridor light-rail project foes flex political muscle

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2013 - 8:44 PM

The fight over the LRT line shows how a small but powerful group can influence transit decisions.

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A runner crosses the bridge on the Kenilworth Trail that runs parallel to railroad tracks over the channel that runs between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake in Minneapolis.

Photo: Courtney Perry, Star Tribune

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Lee Lynch wasn’t at the closed-door meeting where Gov. Mark Dayton, legislative leaders and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak decided to delay the Southwest Corridor light-rail project.

But he might as well have been. The former advertising mogul is a driving force behind efforts by a group of prominent Minneapolis Kenilworth residents to block plans to run the Twin Cities’ biggest and most expensive light-rail line near their homes.

“Good news for us on the Gov’s decision,” Lynch e-mailed two hours after Dayton announced the delay.

A half-dozen Kenilworth foes gave about $350,000 over the years to federal and state Democratic campaigns and liberal causes, including thousands of dollars to campaigns for Dayton and Rybak. They are now part of a larger group raising more money to bankroll a potential court fight if plans for the light-rail line move forward.

While small in numbers, they’ve played a key role in the postponement of a $1.55 billion project that won overwhelming approval from communities along the future line between Eden Prairie and downtown Minneapolis.

The opposition endures even as some others in the Kenilworth area are warming to the plan, which involves hiding the light-rail line in nearly a mile of tunnels in the corridor to placate homeowners who didn’t want the trains running at ground level as once contemplated.

“This is clearly an improvement,” said John Erickson, who represents an association of 57 townhouse owners who live next to the future line. They recently gave tentative support to burying the light-rail lines under recreational trails adjacent to freight tracks that run past their townhouses south of Cedar Lake Parkway. “We’re not opposed to it.”

It’s a very different story north of the parkway, where light-rail trains would emerge from the tunnels for 20 seconds to cross a bridge over a water channel linking Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. The trains would run at ground level for two-tenths of a mile past the homes of more affluent and politically active Kenilworth residents.

While many residents near the Kenilworth corridor criticize the project, a small group near the channel has been particularly assertive.

They include Democratic fundraiser Jim Smart and retired business consultant David Lilly Jr., who live a few houses from each other near the channel. Under the plan, the light-rail line would surface directly behind their back yards.

“They decided to run it through my neighborhood and, yes, I happen to be politically active and … I’m not going to roll over and say go ahead,” Lilly said. “This is ultimately about politics.”

If politics doesn’t work, Lilly joined Lynch’s fundraising effort for a possible court fight.

Saying the project was on a “collision course” with opponents, Dayton last month announced he was delaying its approval for up to 90 days. He said the pause is needed for further study of the possible negative impact of the tunnels on nearby lakes — an earlier analysis found none — and to devise a plan for replacing trees that would be removed during construction. Planners also will take another look at rerouting freight train traffic from the Kenilworth corridor.

“It’s a matter of throwing a bone to your most important supporters without there being political costs to other parts of the state,” said Steven Schier, a Carleton College political science professor. “It’s an issue that directly affects that group of well-connected DFL influentials.”

Dayton press secretary Matt Swenson said it was “absolutely ridiculous” to presume the governor was influenced by political supporters in Kenilworth. Swenson said the decision to delay was driven by widespread opposition from the Minneapolis City Council and Rybak to the plan when their support is crucial.

Rybak said he supported the delay because promises were broken to move the freight line to St. Louis Park to make room for the light rail without tunnels. The tunnel plan raised questions that haven’t been answered, he said.

“I think I’ve shown that I’m willing to go up against people who have backed me,” he said, citing his earlier support for putting the light-rail line in the corridor over the wishes of some Kenilworth residents.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who also attended the meeting with Dayton, said the delay reflects justified community concerns. “It’s important that the community speaks up … and we respond,” he said.

Soon after Dayton’s announcement, Smart advocated a more dramatic option.

“Realignment of the LRT!!!” his note read on a website critical of the light-rail plans.

It reflects the latest twist in the strategy of Southwest critics. Initially, they pushed for rerouting the freight trains to make room for the light rail at ground level. When they realized that 220 light-rail trains would pass daily, they agreed to keep the freight traffic if the light-rail were hidden in a tunnel throughout the entire corridor. But that idea died after metro leaders balked at spending $330 million to dig a tunnel under the water channel.

The Metropolitan Council, the agency planning the project, then offered two smaller tunnels with light-rail traffic surfacing over the channel, for a cost of $160 million. But some residents near the channel still display blue lawn signs calling for the longer tunnel. Others now press Dayton to block light-rail entirely from the Kenilworth corridor.

Jobs and property

Those who want to block light-rail from the corridor insist they support mass transit but argue that the route won’t serve Minneapolis riders as much suburban commuters. They point to relatively low ridership figures projected for several city stations in and north of the wooded, parklike Kenilworth corridor.

“The preference of everyone I know is, ‘Can we change the route of the light rail and put it where there’s going to be people and development?’ ” said Lynch, who also would support a tunnel under the channel. He lives on Cedar Lake, blocks from the proposed route.

“It’s not serving the people of this city,” Smart said.

Others strongly disagree.

“This line … has the ability to serve all kinds of people, all socio-economic groups, more than any other line we’d be building,” said Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, who was on a panel of metro leaders involved in planning the project. “It’s going to benefit Minneapolis people who can’t afford a single-occupant vehicle to be able to get to jobs out in the suburbs.”

Lilly offered a different perspective. “We are just residents who have reasons to be concerned about what’s going to happen to our neighborhood and what’s going to happen to our property values,” he said. “That’s how democracy works.”

Important friends

Smart and his wife, Cynthia, have held many fundraisers at their home for Democrats, including some involved in the controversy over the Southwest line. His Facebook page includes pictures of him with Dayton, Dibble and Rybak.

“R.T. has been a friend of ours for many, many years,” Smart said. “We supported him for governor.”

Smart, who owns a business designing restaurants, said he and his wife are “a couple of old hippies … we realized years ago when we got into the business world that marching in the streets probably wasn’t going to do it for us anymore.

“So we’ve tried to put money or influence any way we can to get people we believe can make this country better — we’ve tried to get them elected,” he said.

Since 1990, the couple has given about $27,000 to federal and state candidates and liberal causes, while Lilly and his wife, Diane, gave $24,000. Lynch and his wife, Terry Saario, a former official in President Jimmy Carter’s administration, gave $302,000 over those years. The three couples spent about $80,000 of their contributions on state candidates and causes, with Dayton and Rybak getting a total of $13,700. “I’ve never asked for a favor,” Lynch said.

Lilly stressed that much of the opposition comes from “good, earnest neighbors living in fairly modest houses.”

But Schier says affluent residents with connections can have a louder voice than people from poorer neighborhoods.

“If this were happening in north Minneapolis, I don’t think you’d get quite the same response,” Schier said. “Objections up there would not have the same resonance at the State Capitol as they do in Kenilworth.”

 

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

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