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Foes of running the Southwest light rail through the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis often argue that the route won’t help the city residents who need transit the most.
“The Minneapolis portion … does not truly meet the needs of our residents,” said Sandi Larson, who lives two blocks from the recreational corridor and wants a route through “denser urban neighborhoods.”
But many in the denser neighborhoods don’t buy the argument.
“Southwest … is going to create more opportunities for the people on the North Side,” said Bishop Richard Howell Jr. of the Shiloh Temple International Ministries in north Minneapolis, calling the proposed rail link to suburban jobs “very promising.”
The potential economic impact of the Southwest light-rail line on Minneapolis and poor neighborhoods is shaping up as a crucial issue for City Council members in upcoming debates on whether to consent to the $1.68 billion project. The City Council and mayor have opposed the Southwest plan and their continued opposition could kill it.
Kenilworth residents opposed to Southwest say running it through their neighborhood in tunnels near recreational trails and freight trains would cause congestion and be unsightly. They also advance a more altruistic argument: The route from downtown to Eden Prairie won’t help Minneapolis residents much because most stations would be in the suburbs and the three city stops closest to North Side minority populations will have the fewest riders.
“It does not meet transportation needs of our city, does not really address persistent inequities in our region,” said Julie Sabo, a former DFL state senator and a leader of Southwest opponents, whose back yard is next to the trails where the light rail would run.
But Southwest has the strong support of North Side community advocates and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. Ellison represents all of Minneapolis in Congress, represented the North Side during four years in the state Legislature and has a home there.
“I only listen to the people I know who hope to get on that line to get out to Eden Prairie to work a job,” Ellison said. “They’re telling me that they want it. The people most directly affected feel … the three stops that are going through north Minneapolis are good.”
Louis King, president of Summit Academy job training center, said Southwest could provide North Side residents a better link to thousands of jobs in the Golden Triangle business center of Eden Prairie.
“If you add a rail line that will get them out to the Golden Triangle … they will get the opportunity,” King said.
The Southwest line also would connect to a line reaching a large Somali immigrant population near the University of Minnesota. Southwest ultimately would become part of a network of light rail converging in downtown Minneapolis that includes the proposed Bottineau line through some North Side neighborhoods and northern suburbs, and the Hiawatha and Central lines reaching Bloomington and St. Paul. The Minneapolis Downtown Council called Southwest “critically important” to compete with other cities “for jobs, businesses and population growth.”
Several Minneapolis City Council members and Mayor Betsy Hodges ran for election last fall calling for better transit as a way to shrink income disparities.
“I have the vision to eliminate the opportunity gaps and keep Minneapolis moving forward,” Hodges said last November. “My vision for growth is centered on transit and rails, bringing people to jobs and jobs to people.”
But support for light rail in principle collided with plans for Southwest in the Kenilworth corridor, an affluent area with influential DFLers. When some of them opposed the plan for light rail there, the City Council and Hodges backed them up.
Their opposition irks some other metro leaders who see a distinction between words and deeds.
“You’ve got to come to the point where you move from rhetoric … to actual investment decisions,” Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said at a meeting where Hodges voted against the project.
Cutting a deal
The Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the Southwest project, is asking Minneapolis and four suburbs along the route for their consent. The agency is negotiating with members of the Minneapolis City Council over details of the plan and concessions that would make the project acceptable. A new City Council member who represents the North Side acknowledges pressure from constituents to accept some version of the plan.
“My sense is the folks in north Minneapolis want it,” said council member Blong Yang.
A potential bargaining chip is extending bus service from the North Side to two of the closest light-rail stations, which are in a valley along the existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks near Penn Avenue and Van White Boulevard.
North Side advocates say the bus service to Southwest is crucial.
“It’s not going to run into the heart of north Minneapolis,” said the Rev. Paul Slack, pastor of New Creation Church. “But one of the ways to connect it is to have bus routes that run from different parts of north Minneapolis … back and forth to the Van White station.”
Tougher, and potentially more expensive, would be extending bus service on Penn Avenue south across I-394 to a frontage road at the top of the valley, where Slack said a pedestrian bridge could be built for passengers to cross the railroad tracks and reach the Penn Southwest stop.
Another concession could be more government money to develop areas around those stations and a third station on Royalston Avenue near the Minneapolis Farmers Market. The Met Council already has spent money to clean up an area near the Royalston station for senior housing and has a long-range plan to develop the Linden Yards area near the proposed Van White station for offices and more than 500 housing units.
Approval of the Southwest Kenilworth route by the Met Council this month hasn’t stopped some Southwest critics from demanding that the agency reconsider running the line in a more densely populated area in Uptown along the Midtown Greenway and north on Nicollet Avenue.
The idea was rejected after studies showed it would have cost as much as $1.73 billion when the Kenilworth option was $500 million cheaper. While tunnels and other features have since boosted Kenilworth costs to $1.68 billion, costs for the Uptown alternative were likely to have increased as well. A neighborhood organization and Nicollet Avenue businesses opposed the alternative and others said a Midtown light rail would have duplicated bus service on Lake Street.
Ellison noted that Southwest planners stand to get half of its funding from the federal government and advised the City Council to “make the best out of the situation. Argue for the things you believe Minneapolis needs … and support the line.”