Legality of light rail approval process questioned

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June 24, 2014 // UPDATED 12:27 pm - June 30, 2014
By: Dylan Thomas
A sign on the Kenilworth Corridor.
File photo
Dylan Thomas
Attorneys for Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis argue environmental questions must be answered prior to municipal consent process

Attorneys representing a group calling themselves the Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis argue in a letter to local officials that the municipal consent process for Southwest light rail is out of compliance with state law.

That law requires a preliminary study of the environmental impact of the project, known as a draft environmental impact statement or DEIS. But the attorneys argue the design approved in April by the Metropolitan Council, which includes two shallow tunnels through Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor, was never evaluated in the 2012 DEIS.

“Minneapolis will have a public hearing, and it’s very difficult to participate in that process and comment about the proposed plans unless you also have available the analysis of the environmental effects of those plans,” said attorney Thomas Johnson of Gray Plant Mooty.

State law governing the municipal consent process requires all five cities on the 15.8-mile light-rail route to hold public hearings on the $1.68-billion project. So far, Hopkins and Minnetonka have voted to approve.

With the deadline for cities to approve or disapprove the plans less than one month away, Minneapolis is the only city that hasn’t yet schedule a hearing. Hennepin County recently set its vote for July 8.

Throughout the contentious planning process there have been repeated warnings that delays would raise the cost of building light rail and potentially jeopardize the federal funds that are key to the project. But Johnson said Lakes and Parks Alliance aimed to “put people on notice” it could take legal action if a preliminary environmental review of the tunnels isn’t completed before the municipal consent process concludes.

“We’ll wait to see what happens,” he said.

Johnson previously represented the Kenilworth Preservation Group, an organization that at one time advocated a $330-million deep-bore tunnel for light rail when it became clear a freight reroute was a long shot. Members of that group and other area property owners, including some affiliated with LRT Done Right, now make up the Lakes and Parks Alliance, he said.

The alliance is also represented by attorney Lewis Remele of Bassford Remele.

Their letter, dated June 23 and the following day, was addressed to Mayor Betsy Hodges and Council President Barbara Johnson. Copies were sent to the rest of the City Council and Met Council Chair Sue Haigh.

Asked for comment, Met Council Communications Director Meredith Vadis emailed this response Tuesday evening:

“Under federal and state law, the municipal consent process runs parallel to the environmental review process. The law does not preclude the submission of preliminary design plans to municipalities under the municipal consent process prior to completion of the environmental reviews.”

The shallow-tunnel design emerged in 2013 as Minneapolis and St. Louis Park battled over light rail plans. The Minneapolis City Council endorsed an at-grade light rail route through Kenilworth assuming that a freight line would first be rerouted through St. Louis Park, but the suburb successfully blocked the move.

Minneapolis is in closed-door negotiations with Met Council over the project. Hodges’ communications director, Kate Brickman, wrote in an email, “Mayor Hodges and the City Council have long expressed concerns about environmental impacts in this corridor.”

“Beyond that, we are still in mediation with the Met Council and respect the confidentiality of the process,” Brickman added.