Divisions remain as Minneapolis nears final light rail vote

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August 20, 2014 // UPDATED 9:13 am - August 26, 2014
By: Dylan Thomas
A cyclist on the Cedar Lake Regional Trail that runs parallel to freight rail tracks in Kenilworth Corridor, the planned route for Southwest LRT.
File photo
Dylan Thomas

The Southwest Light Rail Transit project inched closer to a final Minneapolis City Council vote Tuesday, even as yet another round of public testimony showed deep divisions remain over the $1.6-billion project.

About 50 people spoke when the council’s Transit and Public Works Committee convened Tuesday evening, just hours after the Hennepin County Board voted to approve recent changes to the route through Minneapolis. Detractors once again warned light rail trains running through sparsely populated and relatively undeveloped sections of the city would attract few Minneapolis riders and potentially mar a natural area.

Russell Palma of the Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhood said the idea that the route serves Minneapolis transit users “flies in the face of geography and logic.” Minneapolis is poised to approve — reluctantly — construction of a tunnel for trains between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles, and that “brings into question the very notion of Minneapolis as a ‘green’ city,” Palma said.

That tunnel through part of Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor is part of a compromise the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning body leading the project, and city leaders struck in July. The city backed off its longstanding opposition to adding LRT without first removing the freight trains that run through Kenilworth, and in exchange won $30 million worth of improvements to the Minneapolis section of the project.

A study of the tunnel’s potential environmental impact won’t be complete until early next year, after the local approval process wraps up. A group calling itself the Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis says that is a violation of state law and is threatening to sue.

On Tuesday, Met Council engineer Jim Alexander said the process of federal environmental review is “separate but parallel” to the series of local votes to grant the project what is known under state law as municipal consent.

The city councils of St. Louis Park, Eden Prairie, Minnetonka and Hopkins all voted in July to grant municipal consent. Minneapolis and Hennepin County were granted a later deadline to consider the last-minute changes.

Supporters view Southwest LRT is a key link in a future transit system that will improve access to job and education opportunities along the 15.8-mile route. But on Tuesday they pressured Minneapolis leaders to firm-up commitments to improve local bus connections to the future rail line.

“If the train is definitely coming, let’s make sure everybody can get on board,” said Mel Reeves, a resident of North Minneapolis.

The future line just barely touches North Side neighborhoods, and some want to see Metro Transit run circulator buses to the closest stations at Penn, Royalston and Van White. Advocates from the American Indian community and others in South Minneapolis neighborhoods have pitched improved east-west bus service on Franklin Avenue to bring them to the future 21st Street Station in Kenwood.

The committee reconvenes for a vote on Southwest LRT Aug. 27. The full Council is expected to vote two days later on Aug. 29.