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Neighborhoods get private meetings on Southwest light rail

  • Article by: Pat Doyle
  • Star Tribune
  • April 4, 2014 - 10:04 PM

While the Southwest Corridor light-rail project was delayed for further study, a neighborhood leader met with top aides to Gov. Mark Dayton to pitch a more elaborate plan to satisfy Minneapolis opponents.

Staffers of the agency overseeing the project were asked to respond to the neighborhood group, and its attorney, former Hennepin County Attorney Tom Johnson, appealed directly to the head of the agency, who took a special interest.

“Chair Haigh would like a response prepared for her (she knows Tom personally),” wrote an aide to Susan Haigh, chairwoman of the agency, the Metropolitan Council.

The action late last year is documented in a series of e-mails obtained by the Star Tribune that illustrate some of the private efforts by interest groups to influence plans for the $1.68 billion light-rail line between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.

Next week the Met Council is expected to approve a route for the Southwest Corridor that does not include the kind of tunnel sought by the group to hide light-rail trains under a water channel in the Kenilworth corridor.

Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said Friday the governor’s office initiated separate hourlong meetings in December with three groups seeking different concessions on the light-rail route: Kenilworth leader Stuart Chazin and Johnson, who wanted to hide the light-rail trains under the channel; another Kenilworth group that pushed to reroute the existing freight or the new light rail; and with St. Louis Park residents opposed to rerouting freight trains to make way for the light rail.

He said the meetings were held “to understand their concerns [and] suggestions …”

Met Council spokeswoman Meredith Vadis said, “Chair Haigh regularly responds and/or directs staff to respond to constituent e-mails from individuals, groups and others.”

A private appeal

Chazin, whose back yard runs up to the proposed route, has been a leader of Kenilworth homeowners who favored a light-rail tunnel that would extend under the channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. Met Council engineers said one such plan would cost $330 million — about twice as much as more modest tunnels. Metro leaders who bankroll transit projects rejected the idea last August as too expensive.

But after Dayton in October called for a moratorium on the project, Chazin challenged the cost estimate. Johnson asked a Met Council engineer overseeing the project if upcoming studies would consider a modified version of the idea.

“Will your analysis … include the feasibility of running the LRT underneath the Kenilworth Channel?” Johnson e-mailed Jim Alexander, the chief engineer on the project.

Another Met Council official replied that the agency would not.

Johnson copied that response in an e-mail Dec. 3 to Met Council Chairwoman Haigh. “Susan … would you mind taking a look at the e-mail chain below?” he asked her. “Analyzing the feasibility and cost of ‘dipping’ the … tunnel under the Kenilworth Channel makes all the sense in the world.”

The next day a Haigh aide e-mailed Southwest light-rail planners at the agency, instructing them to prepare a response she could sign and noting a personal connection. Vadis said Haigh knew Johnson when he was Hennepin County’s top prosecutor and she was Ramsey County chief deputy attorney.

Allaying concerns

A week later Dayton’s senior policy adviser, Joanna Dornfeld, e-mailed Haigh and Met Council lobbyist Judd Schetnan to inform them that she and then-Dayton chief of staff Tina Smith met Dec. 9 with Johnson and Chazin.

“Chazin feels as though his suggested project modifications have not been taken seriously,” Dornfeld wrote. She asked that an engineer respond to four questions “in order to acknowledge the concerns and lay them to rest as best as we can.”

Met Council staffers replied that digging a tunnel under the channel “would require the LRT tunnel to be constructed under the channel’s groundwater table at a depth of 60 feet or more to prevent the LRT tunnel from ‘floating.’ ” The explanation was included in a letter drafted for Haigh to send to Johnson.

Jami LaPray, a leader of the St. Louis Park group and whose back yard runs next to freight rail tracks, joined some legislators meeting Smith and Dornfeld about a week after they met with Chazin and Johnson.

LaPray said she asked them to take the freight reroute option off the table. It wasn’t. But the Southwest plan scheduled for a crucial vote by the Met Council next week would keep the freight in the Kenilworth corridor and run the light rail in two tunnels with the transit emerging to cross a bridge over the channel.

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

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