In a dramatic development that removes one of the last major obstacles for the Southwest light-rail project, Minneapolis park officials and the Metropolitan Council reached an agreement Friday to build a bridge for trains over the Kenilworth channel in Minneapolis.
The breakthrough ended a bitter and high-stakes feud over a proposed $1.6 billion light-rail line from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, a route that could reshuffle commuting options in the west metro area and dramatically transform communities in between.
"I'm really proud of this achievement and happy about getting over this barrier," said Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck, who was recently appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton and had been working to broker a deal behind the scenes.
The agreement comes a month after Dayton publicly threatened to withhold state funding for Minneapolis parks until park officials dropped their opposition to the project. The last significant hurdle is a lawsuit brought by area residents, which is set for a March 9 hearing.
Park officials agreed to scrap their idea of an expensive rail tunnel under the channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. Many local residents and some board members wanted to fully investigate the tunnel as a less disruptive alternative to a rail bridge, which could have delayed the project and driven up costs.
In exchange for dropping their opposition, park officials will get a bigger role in the design of the bridge and other park-area elements along the Southwest LRT line. They will also have more say in the Bottineau line to Brooklyn Park, slated for a construction start in 2018.
Although its engineering consultants determined that a tunnel would be technically feasible, the Park Board became convinced that the resulting cost increase and delay made it unworkable.
"It would have set the timeline off longer than we had imagined," Park Board President Liz Wielinski said.
The bruising fight over this particular area along the line became a high-profile distraction last summer as Met Council leaders scrambled to attract crucial state and federal funding.
The Park Board and the Met Council still must approve the agreement.
Dayton upended the debate by threatening to withhold $3.6 million in state aid to Minneapolis regional parks over the next two years, calling park leaders obstructionists. On Friday, the governor said he will restore park funding.
The 16-mile line is slated to connect downtown Minneapolis with Eden Prairie, with stops in St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka. But the path through Minneapolis' Kenilworth corridor has been most contentious.
Neighbors and the Park Board expressed concern that bridges serving freight and light-rail would bring more noise to the channel and create a shadowy passage for boaters in the summer and snow skiers in the winter.
The agreement spells out that the Park Board and other park agencies will be involved in light-rail planning to identify potential effects on parks from rail transit earlier in the process. That could give park officials more leverage when officials begin finalizing the Bottineau line, which passes through Theodore Wirth Park.
The Park Board's resolution, to be voted on Wednesday, anticipates that park officials will be reimbursed for up to $750,000 for past and future potential costs.
Assistant Superintendent Michael Schroeder said the amount is part of the agreement with the Met Council.
The Park Board will get 50 percent of the nearly $500,000 it has spent on consultants for tunneling studies, plus another $21,500 for staff costs associated with those studies.
The agreement also pledges reimbursement for future staff work performed on the Southwest project as the bridge design is shaped. The proposed resolution also anticipates up to $250,000 for future work in shaping the Bottineau line.
The agreement lays out a specific schedule leading to a final bridge design by mid-2016, the year when Southwest construction is planned to start.
It also spells out design principles for the new bridge that try to introduce more light by separating freight, transit and trail bridges.
Wielinski said she expects the agreement to win approval by a board majority, but said she expects some votes against it. The Met Council votes on March 11.
Duininck said that the governor's plans to reduce Minneapolis park aid gave urgency to the Kenilworth negotiations, but he added that outreach he had begun earlier as chair of the council's transportation panel also helped the dialogue.
If no deal had been reached, Duininck estimated the potential lost time for the project at 12 to 18 months and said adding a tunnel would have cost the project at least $100 million overall.
"We now have a path forward for this critically important transit investment, which is a vital link in the 21st-century transit system we will build here in the greater Twin Cities metro," Duininck said.
"The Council is pleased to have the Park Board's support for bridging the channel."