Minneapolis gives Southwest light rail the green light

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August 29, 2014 // UPDATED 4:26 pm - August 29, 2014
By: Dylan Thomas
Council Member Cam Gordon, center, cast one of three votes against municipal consent for Southwest LRT.
Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
With municipal consent from all five cities along the route, Metropolitan Council can apply to commence final engineering for the 16-mile light rail line

The Minneapolis City Council voted 10–3 Friday to grant municipal consent for the $1.65-billion Southwest Light Rail Transit project, becoming the last of five cities on the 16-mile route to give trains the green light.

Having won the necessary local approvals, the Metropolitan Council can now apply to the federal government to begin final engineering on Southwest LRT, an extension of the Green Line already connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul. If all goes as planned, passenger service between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie will begin in 2019.

Dissenting on the vote were Cam Gordon, Barb Johnson and Lisa Goodman, but council members expressed a deeper sense of ambivalence than was reflected in the final tally. Mayor Betsy Hodges, a supporter of the project, sounded somber as she delivered her remarks.

“There is not going to be a celebration,” Hodges said. “There is no victory lap on this one.”

In agreeing to co-location of light rail and freight rail trains in Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor, the council stepped over a line it had drawn several years earlier. Light rail trains will travel through the corridor in a shallow tunnel, but an environmental study on that last-minute change to the project won’t be available for four months. And with most Minneapolis stations planned for relatively remote and lightly populated areas, there remain questions about how local transit users will access the line.

Several who voted “yes” despite those concerns described Southwest LRT as a key link in an expanding regional transit network. Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (Ward 8) said Minneapolis was “woefully behind” in adding rail connections.

“I think we’re all trying to look to the future and do the right thing,” Glidden said.

Broken promises

At the root of the councils’ discontent is what Hodges described as the “core broken promise” in the years-long Southwest LRT planning process.

Kenilworth Corridor landowner Hennepin County decades ago identified it as a future transitway. Then, in the 1990s, when construction of the Hiawatha LRT line severed a freight link between Minneapolis and St. Paul, it allowed Twin Cities & Western to run its freight trains through the corridor.

It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but the county never got that agreement in writing. When it came time to move, TC&W refused.

Last year, Met Council planners came up with the solution of running light rail trains through a shallow tunnel. It took weeks of closed-door negotiations, but Minneapolis leaders ultimately agreed to a version of the tunnel plan this summer, winning $30 million worth of local improvements in the process.

While a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) on the rest of the line is complete, the tunnel is now the subject of a supplementary report not expected until January. A group known as the Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis is threatening to sue the Met Council, alleging it violated state and federal laws by moving ahead with municipal consent before the environmental review was complete.

Gordon (Ward 2) said the city wasn’t even allowed to review an incomplete version before voting.

“The federal government is holding the [supplemental DEIS] and won’t even let us look at the draft,” he said.

With Friday’s vote, the council also instructed city staff to take action if the report uncovers the potential to harm either area groundwater or the Chain of Lakes.

“We will stop this train if it threatens our city’s and our region’s environmental resources in the Chain of Lakes,” said Council Member Lisa Bender (Ward 10).

Seeking commitments

In casting her vote for Southwest LRT, Bender said the train “only makes sense” if new bus routes — and streetcars, potentially — connect more Minneapolis neighborhoods to the light rail network.

“The regional and state partners that have been pushing so hard for this train have not made a commitment to building our local transit system, and those are the connections that we must have to make this train work,” she said.

In a written statement released after the City Council vote, Met Council Chair Sue Haigh said Southwest LRT “will enhance the ability of corridor residents including low-income, transit-dependent and minority communities to access good jobs, education and community amenities.”

But many in Minneapolis are waiting to hear more specifics from Met Council beyond the 150–200 new bus stops in underserved areas it pledged this summer. Ward 5 City Council Member Blong Yang noted Southwest LRT just grazes North Minneapolis, and said without better bus connections his constituents won’t benefit.

“We don’t know until we build it, and that’s a huge concern of mine,” Yang said.