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Metro Blue Line

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Adam Platt: Southwest commuter rail

  • Article by: Adam Platt
  • August 10, 2013 - 9:44 PM

How much should we spend to preserve a bike trail?

As the cost and logistical problems related to the Southwest light-rail proposal mount, it’s becoming ever more difficult to separate insurmountable from perceived hurdles and understand what is going on. Given that spiraling costs threaten both the project’s state support and federal funding ranking, the goal now should be to bring that cost back within anticipated margins.

There are four key constituencies in conflict:

• The Twin Cities & Western Railroad, whose trains already use what is designated to be the light-rail route from near Cedar Lake all the way into the western suburbs.

• Residents of the Kenwood and Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhoods, most of whom have vehemently opposed light rail for years, but have now accepted it after being promised by Minneapolis officials that the few TC&W freights now running would go away instead.

• Residents near the so-called Brunswick Central freight reroute in St. Louis Park, who don’t relish the presence of TC&W freight trains in their community.

• And users of a bike trail, a placeholder that sits on the long-designated light-rail route through a bucolic corridor between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake.

The solution that the interested parties seem to have coalesced around is a $330 million light-rail tunnel that would make all the problems disappear. Add in nearly $100 million to accommodate TC&W trains elsewhere on the Southwest route, and you’re looking at nearly half a billion in mitigation for freight rail — mitigation that was known to be obligatory years ago, but whose cost was not made explicit until days ago.

If there’s any single question that west metro residents should be asking their elected officials today, it’s why these costs were not tabulated when route analysis took place, and why that assessment took two additional years from the time the Federal Transit Administration ordered the region to consider TC&W’s needs as part of the project. After all, taxpayers were on the hook for it.

This strategy is what has left so many dumbfounded at the project’s spiraling cost only days before its final scope was to be settled.

Many are calling for a back-to-square-one reconsideration of the route, including this newspaper (“Rethink options on Southwest light rail,” editorial, Aug. 4). That would likely set SWLRT back half a decade. Plus, cost of construction will spiral upward, as it always does.

Is there a better way? One that doesn’t involve demolishing homes in St. Louis Park or townhomes in Kenwood? One that doesn’t require building nine-figure tunnels, eliminating stations, or moving freight trains to awkward routings on giant berms?

How about a solution that involves just moving a bike trail?

The bike trail through the so-called Kenilworth corridor is a valuable commuting route and must be preserved. I accept that. I do not accept the logic that the land it sits on is “precious green space,” nor that the park and lake-rich neighborhoods I live around will be impoverished by the loss of a narrow swath of land that is not a park, and has for decades been designated as a transit corridor. (Hennepin County might have done more to keep that designation front-of-mind in these neighborhoods over the years.)

Of the Metropolitan Council’s current freight rail mitigation alternatives for SWLRT, the two cheapest involve moving the bike trail from the rail corridor or elevating it above the trains. (Council officials have told community meetings that the trail options have been dropped from primary consideration.) Area residents don’t like the plan. And admittedly, if the same aesthetic that is used to design local bus shelters and transit stations is employed, it would surely be hideous.

Many of my well-traveled neighbors have been to New York and Paris. They’ve seen the High Line and the Promenade Plantée, two elevated rail structures that have been converted to pedestrian and bike trails. Built of brick and iron, bedecked with flowers and greenery, anchored with small kiosks, they are visitor magnets and beloved by locals.

Who says we have to build a dank concrete monstrosity here? What if we were to create our own High Line to be a community asset rather than an eyesore? Would that really cost much more than the $50 million the Met Council has estimated for an elevated trail?

Some of my neighbors will argue that we were promised we would not get stuck with both light rail and freight rail. And they’re right. And it’s not fair. And we were misled. But this is the option with the fewest negatives and least cost — and the people most affected would be those who chose to buy homes around a designated transit corridor, which is fair.

At its essence, the issue is whether two of the most advantaged neighborhoods in the region have the right to insulate themselves from inconvenience at the expense of every taxpayer in the county, or to foist their problems on less-advantaged neighborhoods.

I’d argue that it’s our turn to take the bullet.

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Adam Platt, a resident of the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis, is executive editor of Twin Cities Business magazine.

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