A federal judge declined to rule on a request by Southwest light-rail line opponents to halt the $1.74 billion project because it has allegedly violated federal and state laws.
Still, the legal battle over the 14½-mile line continues, and U.S. District Judge John Tunheim on Tuesday had some harsh words for the Metropolitan Council’s handling of what would be the state’s most expensive transit project.
“Through much of this process, the Met Council has had a clear favorite route for [Southwest light rail]” — at the expense of other alternatives, Tunheim wrote. And, by reaching a deal regarding freight traffic along the line, “the Met Council has come dangerously close to impermissibly prejudicing the ongoing environmental review process,” he noted.
Still, Tunheim ruled against the Lakes and Parks Alliance’s request for summary judgment, which would have been an immediate victory for the Minneapolis nonprofit group, noting the Alliance has not shown that the Met Council had “irreversibly and irretrievably” committed to a specific Southwest route.
The Alliance filed suit in U.S. District Court against the Met Council last September, claiming the regional planning body violated federal environmental laws in selecting the current route for the project, which links Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
The group also charged that the Met Council violated a Minnesota law that calls for the five cities along the line to consent to the project, following a series of public hearings. Its members contend the “municipal consent” hearings occurred before the completion of environmental studies assessing the impact of tunnels in the Kenilworth corridor, a 1.5-mile strip of land between the Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake in Minneapolis.
The current plan calls for Southwest trains traveling north to travel through two tunnels in the Kenilworth corridor, emerging to pass over the channel connecting the two lakes on a new bridge.
The Alliance claims the tunnels and bridges would compromise an environmentally sensitive area, and alleges that the Met Council refused to consider alternatives to reroute the project away from the corridor, a popular pedestrian and bicycling area.
Tunheim appeared to agree, saying that in pursuing municipal consent for the current route before finishing the environmental review, the Met Council has “not simply limited the number of options for the SWLRT project — [it has] narrowed the options down to one and reduced the ongoing environmental review to a meaningless formality.”
Changes bring new hearings
After the project’s costs ballooned by $341 million this spring, the Met Council opted to cut $250 million from the new budget, in part by slashing two stations in Eden Prairie. Except for Minneapolis, the cities along the line — St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka, and Eden Prairie, as well as Hennepin County and its railroad authority — agreed to pitch in more money in cash and land to support the project.
The Met Council subsequently decided that, because of the changes, a new round of public hearings, and more approvals from the five cities and Hennepin County is necessary. That process will begin later this month.
As the hearings play out, the federal environmental review of the project continues — a critical step for the Met Council to win $827 million from the Federal Transit Administration.
Because the situation is fluid, Tunheim said issuing a final ruling on the lawsuit would be premature. “When the record is more adequately developed, the court will again consider a summary judgment,” he wrote.
In a statement, Meredith Vadis, the Met Council’s deputy regional administrator, said, “The judge’s ruling acknowledges the council’s position, which is that the environmental review and municipal consent processes are evolving as required by the circumstances. Having just received the ruling we need time to fully review it and have no further comment at this point.”
Mary Pattock, a spokeswoman for the Lakes and Parks Alliance, said, “Although it would have been great if Judge Tunheim had granted us summary judgment at this point in the process, we are pleased and encouraged that he specifically says this case is not concluded, but evolving. In fact, he calls attention to the possibility that the Met Council is ‘dangerously close’ to violating the federal environmental laws — apparently he just wants a little more proof to demonstrate that.
“We will be meeting with our lawyers to discuss next steps,” she added.