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The Hiawatha light-rail line will be called the Blue Line in Metro Transit's branding makeover.

Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

Light rail will ruin a quiet area

  • Article by: STEVEN R. GOLDSMITH
  • December 13, 2012 - 10:23 PM

The proposed Southwest light-rail route, as it enters Minneapolis from St. Louis Park, would pass between W. Lake Street and Penn Avenue S., using an existing freight-rail corridor running alongside the east shore of Cedar Lake. As reported in the Star Tribune ("Southwest rail benefits outweigh issues: study," Oct. 13) the draft environmental-impact statement for this route notes many problems with this segment, yet concludes that the tradeoffs make them acceptable.

But the report does not truly capture what would happen to this part of Minneapolis if this segment of the light-rail line is built as planned. The real environmental impact would be to ruin the area. The larger community needs to be aware of what is at stake here.

The area between Lake Street and Penn Avenue begins as a quiet residential neighborhood on either side of the Kenilworth Channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. This gives way to parkland along the east side of Cedar Lake. In the middle of this urban oasis runs a critical segment of the Minneapolis system of bicycle trials, used by hundreds of commuters and recreational bikers every day for much of the year.

This area has coexisted for decades in relative harmony with the remnants of a once-busier freight-rail corridor. The current daily handful of slow diesel trains poses little real disturbance. If built as proposed, however, the segment of the light-rail route in this corridor would fundamentally and irrevocably alter the character of this beautiful urban green space.

The infrastructure for electrically powered light-rail transit would permanently deface the entire area. Running more than 250 trains through this corridor each day from dawn to midnight would significantly diminish its desirability as a place to live. Property values would fall; tax revenue would drop accordingly. Some studies do show increased property values in proximity to light-rail lines, but they are not relevant to this project. For good reasons, light rail is not typically put in the midst of highly developed residential and recreational areas.

The visual impact of the needed infrastructure, combined with the noise and even the danger of more than 250 fast trains per day, would also greatly erode the attractiveness of this part of the recreational and commuter bicycle trail system. Many who now commute by bicycle might well choose to drive instead (which would be an ironic consequence of a project designed in part to reduce traffic). Recreational bicyclists will simply go elsewhere.

The project includes a station at W. 21st Street, a placement that makes no sense. This is an isolated location along parkland, not close to any major streets. It would be inconvenient to access; parking is limited, and a park-and-ride lot there would be contrary to Minneapolis policy. Serious questions have been raised about the actual use of this station, since local residents don't need it, given their proximity to downtown, and the appeal to suburban riders heading toward town is not obvious.

But the sound pollution it would bring to residential streets, Cedar Lake Park and the bicycle trail would be considerable. Residents and visitors would hear more than 250 warning bells or horns per day as trains approached this station, each greater than 100 decibels. The peaceful soundscape of this largely silent space would be shattered.

There is a partial solution, though it would significantly increase the cost of the project. Trains must travel below grade from Lake Street to Penn Avenue, and there should be no station at 21st Street unless it is also below grade. The alternative current proposal to alleviate surface congestion -- elevating trains using a massive, 42-foot-high "flyover" bridge on part of the route -- would actually magnify visual intrusiveness and noise. It is deeply disturbing that anyone with any knowledge of the area could seriously propose such a structure.

Rather, the trains must be buried, preferably in a tunnel, or at least in a deep trench. This is the only way to attempt to preserve the essential character of the area.

There are other major issues with this route, including the implications of relocating freight traffic within St. Louis Park, and the impact on an already congested area around Lake Street and Excelsior Boulevard. Perhaps solutions can be found to all of these problems, perhaps not. But if the Southwest line is deemed vital to the economic future of our community, the project should be done correctly. We will live with the consequences of building this route for decades.

If the cost of doing it correctly means that the plan is no longer economically feasible, it should be abandoned, or a new route should be chosen.

(Members of the public may provide written comment on the project until Dec. 31 at www.southwesttransitway.org.)

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Steven R. Goldsmith is a cardiologist at Hennepin County Medical Center and has lived in the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis for more than 25 years.

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