Just when it seemed like a retooled Southwest light-rail line was back on track, the Metropolitan Council opted Wednesday to order a new round of public hearings that will stretch into October.
The hearings and subsequent votes, called municipal consent, will take place in Hennepin County and the five cities along the line — Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. They are prompted by more than $250 million in cuts to the project, including dropping the final station at Mitchell Road in Eden Prairie and deferring another stop at Town Center there.
The cost of the slimmed-down line now stands at $1.74 billion, a dramatic change that will require more public input.
Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck said he was “really confident” the project would past muster with its host cities — again. “We have so much more momentum now than we did last summer.”
But for supporters and opponents alike, the news may seem to be a cruel kind of déjà vu. The previous round of hearings, which wrapped up last year, included some that were highly contentious. And a retired judge had to mediate talks between the Met Council and the city of Minneapolis.
“It was so nice last year thinking it was over,” said Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens. “But that’s the way it goes.”
State law calls for public hearings on light-rail projects like Southwest. If a city or if Hennepin County does not grant consent, a hearing is held so opposing views may be heard, and then mediation is encouraged to reach a consensus.
The Met Council, Hennepin County and its regional rail authority will hold the first public hearing at 6 p.m. Aug. 27 at the Minneapolis Central Library on Nicollet Mall. Each city will set its own dates for hearings.
This spring, the Met Council revealed that the cost of the then-$1.65 billion project had ballooned by $341 million due largely to engineering issues and the increased cost of acquiring land along the route.
A Southwest advisory committee waded through the project’s financials and suggested cuts later approved by the Met Council — including paring public art, landscaping and amenities on station platforms. Parking was reduced and an opportunity for a joint real estate development project in Hopkins nixed.
In order to end the project at SouthWest station in Eden Prairie — already a big bus hub — several of the towns along the line said they’d contribute more money. To date, Hopkins, St. Louis Park and Minnetonka have contributed $4.5 million more, with Hennepin County and its rail authority adding $8 million and $30 million more in cash and land, respectively. Some of the additional funds will be matched by the federal government.
2020, 14.5 miles, 15 stations
The cost-cutting and subsequent hearings mean the line will open in 2020, a year later than originally planned.
The new iteration of the line is 14.5 miles long with 15 stations stretching from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
But it is still between $7 million and $10 million short of cash, an amount Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin is confident will be found in coming weeks. “I have no worries,” he said Tuesday. Duininck said Wednesday he shares that confidence: “We’re talking to the cities, we’re close.”
But it’s unclear at this point where exactly the additional funds will come from.
Tyra-Lukens said she’s not sure the Eden Prairie City Council will opt to contribute more money. The city has already agreed to donate $3 million worth of land to the project, in addition to dropping and deferring the two stations.
Some of the other cities along the line have privately grumbled that Eden Prairie has not given enough, a notion that Tyra-Lukens finds preposterous. “We’ve contributed a huge portion toward eliminating the overrun,” she said.
The new round of hearings also will provide fuel to those opposing the line, including a particularly fervent group in Minneapolis that has sued the Met Council over the way it handled the first round of municipal consent.
The Lakes and Parks Alliance filed suit in federal court last September charging that the Met Council moved forward with the municipal consent process before a thorough environmental review was done, an alleged violation of federal law.
Since then, a supplemental environmental review was released after a compromise was reached between the Met Council and the city of Minneapolis on the alignment of the Southwest project through the Kenilworth Corridor. The current plan calls for freight and light-rail trains to run side-by-side and a tunnel along the corridor of land between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake that is popular with bicyclists and pedestrians.
But Mary Pattock, a spokeswoman for a coalition of groups opposing the Southwest project, said the supplemental study was “horribly bungled” and based on “Orwellian logic.”
Pattock said the group will show up in force for the Minneapolis municipal consent hearing. Beyond environmental worries, the groups are concerned about freight trains, some carrying flammable materials, running close to the light-rail line, and the havoc construction will have on public infrastructure and private homes.
“I would like to think we could get a majority of council members to vote against this particular routing [through the Kenilworth Corridor] on the basis of the new information,” Pattock said.
The suit in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis is awaiting a final decision by Judge John Tunheim. An attorney for the Met Council wrote the judge on July 15 saying the changes to the line and the new round of municipal consent “may be material to the court’s pending [decision].”