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.

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