The Twin Cities’ biggest transit project passed a major milestone Wednesday with the approval of a $1.68 billion design that emerged from years of planning and quarreling.

The Southwest Corridor light-rail line now faces a showdown with Minneapolis that will likely decide its fate.

The Metropolitan Council, the agency in charge of the project, voted 14-2 in favor of a plan to hide the light-rail line in twin tunnels through the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis, despite complaints that it will disrupt and transform the neighborhood.

“This is really about building a project for the next century,” Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh said.

One of the two dissenting votes was cast by Council Member Gary Cunningham, who represents part of Minneapolis and is married to Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, who opposes the plan.

“I stand with the elected representatives of the city of Minneapolis,” Cunningham said, though he later indicated that negotiations could resolve some of his objections.

The Minneapolis City Council last month came out against the tunnels, and Hodges last week refused to consider the tunnel route at a meeting of mayors and other leaders of communities where the line would run.

Now cities get to vote

The Met Council decision for the first time sends the project to the five cities along its nearly 16-mile route for their consent, a process that could trigger negotiations for concessions. Agency planners have left open the possibility of forging ahead without Minneapolis’ consent, but Gov. Mark Dayton has said that could tie the project up in lawsuits and effectively doom it.

Asked after the meeting whether she’d move ahead without consent from Minneapolis, Haigh said, “I cannot imagine this region moving forward with a $1.6 billion project to move 30,000 people a day into the city of Minneapolis without the support of the city of Minneapolis.”

The Southwest line would link Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Hopkins and St. Louis Park with downtown Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota, the State Capitol and downtown St. Paul. Riders also could transfer to the Blue Line light-rail line south to the airport and Mall of America and to the future Bottineau line in the northern suburbs.

The plan includes a sweetener for Eden Prairie: an additional station and extended line. Community officials argued the extension was needed to take advantage of employment opportunities.

In approving the plan, the Met Council rejected the demands of Minneapolis officials that freight trains be rerouted from the Kenilworth corridor to St. Louis Park to make room for the light-rail trains to run at ground level next to recreation trails. St. Louis Park opposed the plan, as did a railroad that would have had clout with the federal government in any decision over rerouting its line.

The tunnels were designed by Met Council planners as a concession to some homeowners in the corridor who didn’t want light-rail trains running at ground level next to the freight trains or didn’t want the light-rail line at all. But the homeowners objected to the plan to have the light-rail line emerge from the tunnels to cross a bridge over a water channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake, and said the construction would disrupt and transform the area.

Touting jobs, education

Disputing critics who say the Southwest line favors suburban interests over the city’s, Met Council members described the line as a crucial link in an expanding light-rail network.

“The execution of this rail transit plan will reinforce the pre-eminence of downtown Minneapolis as the predominant employment center,” Council Member Steve Elkins said. “I would hope the city keeps that in mind.”

“We can’t make a decision that everyone will be happy with,” Council Member Jennifer Munt said. “We have to think regionally.”

Munt said the plan satisfies key goals because it doesn’t adversely affect water in the nearby lakes and channel, keeps bike trails in the corridor and doesn’t require the acquisition of homes or businesses.

“The region’s quality of life and our economic vitality depend on moving this project forward,” Munt said. “This is an opportunity train. It connects people to higher education.”

While the tunnels contributed $160 million in costs to the plan, Haigh called it “the right decision for … the project budget and for the region and for our economic prosperity.”

Council Member Adam Duininck, who represents parts of eastern Minneapolis, also voted with the majority.

The council member who represents the Kenilworth corridor — as well as St. Louis Park — was absent. Met Council spokeswoman Meredith Vadis said Council Member James Brimeyer “is traveling out of the country on a long-planned trip.”

But Brimeyer wrote a letter to other council members saying he supported the plan. “It may not meet everyone’s ‘ideal’ solution, but it does meet the transit needs of the region for the long term,” he wrote.

Council Member Wendy Wulff of Lakeville joined Cunningham in casting the only no votes, saying alternatives to the controversial route had not gotten enough attention.

Eyes on Minneapolis

Cunningham, whose district includes north Minneapolis, told the council that the process leading to the decision was “interesting and convoluted” and cited a history of what he called broken promises. “We … are sharing in something that I don’t think is right,” he said.

He noted that three Minneapolis stops on the line are near areas of high unemployment and said transit systems in Portland, Ore., and elsewhere had “gentrified” nearby neighborhoods and forced out low-income residents.

Afterward, Cunningham struck a more conciliatory tone. “We want to see a plan that assures that economic development occurs along those stops,” he said. “That’s what I want to see. I’m only speaking for myself. The city of Minneapolis has elected representatives that … will negotiate.”

He said he saw the possibility of an agreement.

“We’re at the beginning of a process,” he said. “That process now says the city and the Metropolitan Council will negotiate an agreement … about how this gets decided.”