Southwest LRT: Bumpy path to crucial Mpls. vote

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 12, 2014 - 11:46 PM

Concerns linger over effects on lakes, recreation and homes as Minneapolis prepares to vote this month on the Southwest line.

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A yard sign on Cedar Lake Parkway speaks to the proposed freight rail issue along Kenilworth Trail in Minneapolis September 27, 2013.

Photo: Courtney Perry, Dml - Courtney Perry

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Even if the Minneapolis City Council soon approves plans for the Southwest Corridor light rail, its impact on lakes, trails and homes in the community will be dissected and debated for months.

Environmental concerns have prompted some homeowners along the route to urge the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to withhold funding until the impact of the project is more clarified. They say the city needs that information before voting on whether to consent to the project Aug. 29.

But there are potential stumbling blocks to the city giving its consent. City leaders are demanding a guarantee that nearby freight tracks in the Kenilworth corridor will remain publicly owned, and some council members worry that plans for restoring biking and hiking trails might be scratched to save money.

The concerns persist even as several City Council members last week predicted that a July deal brokered on the Southwest plans would probably be approved.

“There’s a lot of momentum to getting it done,” said Council Member Cam Gordon.

The Southwest line would run nearly 16 miles from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie and cost $1.65 billion, the most expensive transit project in the Twin Cities. The Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project, wants to have Minneapolis’ consent before giving a critical progress report in September to the FTA, which is expected to pay half the cost.

The FTA weighs local support when deciding which transit projects to fund, and the Met Council has said it considers Minneapolis support crucial. Plans for Southwest already have been approved by Eden Prairie, St. Louis Park, Minnetonka and Hopkins — the other cities along the line.

A group of Minneapolis residents that calls itself the Lakes and Parks Alliance has urged the FTA to withhold funding, claiming the environmental review process for the project “is not in compliance with state and federal law.”

They’re represented by former Hennepin County Attorney Tom Johnson, who wrote the federal agency that the review “must occur before decisions being made by governmental bodies.”

An environmental review of earlier Southwest options was completed in 2012. At the time, planners were considering moving the freight trains to St. Louis Park to make room for the light rail at ground level in the Kenilworth freight corridor. They also considered keeping the freight in the Kenilworth corridor with light rail and trails running alongside entirely at ground level.

The review was critical of running the trains side by side, but St. Louis Park and the railroad that uses the tracks blocked a freight reroute.

The plan brokered last month by negotiators for Minneapolis and the Met Council calls for keeping the freight in the corridor but hiding the light rail in a tunnel south of a channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. The light-rail trains would surface to cross a bridge over the channel and run at ground level north through the corridor.

Johnson said an updated environmental review of the tunnel is needed before citizens and the City Council can adequately evaluate the latest version of the project.

But the Met Council disagrees, saying state law allows cities to consent to the design of a transit project before a revised environmental review is finished. If upcoming studies reveal problems, they can be fixed later. A statute also sets a timetable that requires action by Minneapolis on Southwest by September — before the updated review will be completed.

Two previous studies have concluded that the impact of tunnels on the lakes and channel would be minimal.

Minneapolis officials who brokered the deal didn’t try to postpone a vote on the package so that a new environmental review could be completed. “That’s not really an option for us,” said Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, who played a key role in the negotiations.

The law gives a city another vote if there’s a “substantial change” in plans it approved earlier, said Mark Fuhrmann, who is in charge of light-rail development for the Met Council.

That happened in 2003, when Bloomington voted a second time on the Hiawatha light-rail plans after changes were made in the route and stations.

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