Met Council vote gives Southwest LRT the OK

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April 9, 2014 // UPDATED 11:06 am - April 15, 2014
By: Dylan Thomas
Met Council Member Gary Cunningham, at center, cast one of two votes against the Southwest LRT project.
Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
The region's largest transit project moves into the next phase: winning municipal consent from cities along the route

The Metropolitan Council’s plans for Southwest Light Rail Transit are in the hands of Minneapolis leaders who must now decide whether or not to grant the project the city’s approval, known as municipal consent.

The municipal consent package containing plans for 15.8-mile, nearly $1.7-billion extension of the Metro Transit Green Line arrived April 10 in Minneapolis, said Kate Brickman, communications director for Mayor Betsy Hodges. That was one day after the Met Council voted 14–2 to approve the budget and scope of the project, including it’s most controversially piece: two shallow tunnels for trains in Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor.

The tunnels allow for co-location of light rail and freight rail trains in the narrow corridor, which also houses a bike and pedestrian path, a plan Minneapolis officials have gone on record opposing. There is speculation now that Minneapolis may try to strike a deal with the Met Council to head off a “no” vote on municipal consent, an outcome that could kill the metro area’s largest transit project after years of planning.

Met Council Chair Sue Haigh said she “cannot imagine” proceeding without consent from all five cities along the route stretching from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. Speaking after the council’s vote, Haigh also left open the idea that talks with Minneapolis could lead to alterations in the current plan.

An April 11 statement from Brickman indicated those talks had not yet begun.

“Mayor Hodges can't support this package as it stands today,” she wrote in an email. “If the Met Council wants to have a conversation with Mayor Hodges, she is open to having a conversation.”

City Council Member Kevin Reich [Ward 1] described a “collective sense of disappointment” after the Met Council vote. Opposition to co-location was a “fundamental position” of the Minneapolis City Council that approved the Kenilworth Corridor route 2010, one reaffirmed by a unanimous vote of the current Council, Reich said.

“We do stand by our votes in the past,” he said. “They are real and we have to start from that point.

“Obviously, we’re going to be called upon to think about the broader regional issues and implications, but … we do have a defined starting point.”

City Council Member Blong Yang [Ward 5] said he’d like the Met Council to address some of the concerns over equity the new light rail route raises. Yang, who lives with his family in the Jordan neighborhood, said, “I don’t know how we’re going to get on Southwest.”

The potential to carry workers from the city to suburban job centers was one of the project’s selling points. But Yang noted the stops meant to serve his constituents — the Penn and Van White stations east of downtown — are still a trek for most North Side residents, and not easy to access by bus.

“If we do have (bus) connections, will Southwest LRT serve people?” Yang asked. “Probably, but we don’t have them right now.”

Met Council Member Gary Cunningham, who is married to Hodges and represents Minneapolis, raised the same issue after casting one of two “no” votes on Southwest light rail.

“I’m putting at the forefront of my vote the issue of access and opportunity for low-income people,” Cunningham said.

He called for Met Council, which operates Metro Transit, to “guarantee” access to light rail via high-frequency bus routes. Noting light rail lines have led to gentrification of neighborhoods in other cities, he also sought protections for affordable housing.

The city’s long-term transit plans also envision another transit connection to light rail: streetcars.

Streetcars aren’t currently in Met Council’s Transit Policy Plan, a major hurdle to implementation in Minneapolis. Met Council spokesperson Bonnie Kollodge said there was an ongoing discussion over modifying the plan to identify streetcars as a “transitway,” but added Met Council still had not identified any funding for streetcars.

City Council Member Andrew Johnson [Ward 12] suggested talks over Southwest light rail could also advance Minneapolis’ plans for streetcars, though he acknowledged that was “speculative.”

“We need to answer some larger questions in the transit picture, as well,” Johnson said.

The deadline for a municipal consent vote currently stands at June 29. Met Council and Hennepin County meetings now scheduled for mid-May will open a 45-day window for the municipal consent process.

Minneapolis must hold an open house and public hearing on the project, and under the current timeline they would be scheduled for late May or early June. Reich, who chairs the Transportation and Public Works Committee, said it was unclear if Southwest light rail would be discussed in committee before going before the full Council for a vote.

“Maybe it will be unanimous, maybe it will be split,” Reich said. “That is to be determined, but at this point we’re all working together, we’re all on the same page trying to review and respond to what’s been presented to us.”

[This story was updated April 15.]

— Sarah McKenzie contributed to this report.