Hundreds of activists are raising doubts about safety and environmental impact; now they’re threatening lawsuits.
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.”