The inequitable planning and process of Southwest Light Rail

Share this:
January 9, 2014
By: Amy Rock
Amy Rock

Will the proposed SWLRT give our region — and especially our largest city, Minneapolis – the best value for our limited transit tax dollars?  LRT Done Right is deeply concerned that as we enter 2014, the next phase of SWLRT planning will be a continuation of the flawed process, planning, and outcomes that have led to what we believe is the wrong route for Minneapolis.

Paul Wellstone once said, “Grassroots organizing requires grassroots organizers.” LRT Done Right (LRTDR) is a grassroots group that organized quickly in June 2013 in alarm that the Met Council planned to co-locate freight rail and SWLRT in the Kenilworth Corridor. Representing citizens in neighborhoods near the Kenilworth Trail, throughout Minneapolis and suburban areas, LRTDR has looked closely at the SWLRT process, outcomes, and costs. Here are some of the things we’ve learned:

Running through the cherished Minneapolis Chain of Lakes, the Hennepin County-owned Kenilworth Trail is a very successful commuter and recreational transit corridor for bicyclists, runners and walkers serving over 620,000 users every year. A freight train also operates there, transporting a variety of materials including tanker cars to and from the oil fields of North Dakota. The Kenilworth SWLRT alignment was never considered the ‘best route possible’ for Minneapolis ridership and urban economic development needs. Mayor Rybak’s office preferred a route that would serve Uptown and busy neighborhoods to the east, but Hennepin County and the SWLRT Policy Advisory Committee favored Kenilworth in order to provide shorter commute times for suburban riders, and because it seemed cheaper and easier than routing SWLRT through dense urban areas. They proposed Kenilworth as the official “Locally Preferred Alternative” (LPA) alignment in 2009.

In 2007, the suburbs of Minnetonka and Eden Prairie made it clear that running SWLRT through the Hennepin County-owned recreational trails in their communities, comparable to the Kenilworth Trail in Minneapolis, would be detrimental to their cities’ quality of life and limit development opportunities.  Consequently, $300 million was added at that time to the project to improve the alignment, taking the overall project budget up 30 percent from about $900 million to about $1.2 billion.  (That’s why the map of the proposed SWLRT route shows a hook at the south end rather than a straight line along the HCRRA-owned right-of-way.)  It’s more expensive, more difficult — and a better route for Eden Prairie and Minnetonka. 

When the Minneapolis City Council voted on the Kenilworth LPA in January 2010, they understood “the LRT [Kenilworth] alternatives require that the existing freight rail service be rerouted through St. Louis Park” (SWLRT Alternatives Analysis, 2007). Freight relocation was Hennepin County’s policy from the beginning of SWLRT planning and is documented in many places. 

With a budget then pegged at $1.25 billion, Minneapolis was assured that a Kenilworth SWLRT without freight would be thoughtfully planned and mitigation equitably addressed despite the far less than ideal routing.  This was to be accomplished by the Met Council in response to the many serious and complex concerns expressed by the City of Minneapolis, the Park Board, and other stakeholders who commented on a 2012 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).  The Met Council was expected to engage extensively with stakeholders throughout most of 2013 to achieve context-sensitive design and mitigation of SWLRT, with no freight, in the Kenilworth Greenway.

Unfortunately, Hennepin County did not understand the actual costs and feasibility — both practical and political — of moving freight out of the Kenilworth corridor, nor did it obtain agreement with the freight company before it recommended Kenilworth as the preferred alignment. These were serious and basic planning failures that didn’t come to light until January 2013 when the freight operator, TC&W, rejected the relocation options proposed in the DEIS after a great deal of money, time, and political capital had been invested in preliminary planning of the Kenilworth alignment.

The Met Council then scrambled to come up with an answer. In July 2013, they publicly unveiled eight options to address TC&W’s concerns, all of which maintained the Kenilworth SWLRT route through Minneapolis. Six of these options left the freight in place, contrary to the long-standing policy.  The designs offered simply inflamed community sentiment, including in St. Louis Park which was given two freight reroute options, and left unaddressed key concerns of city officials, Minneapolis residents, state legislators Rep. Frank Hornstein, and Sen. Scott Dibble regarding the freight reroute and environmental impacts on the Chain of Lakes.

In October 2013, the Corridor Management Committee, representing the five SWLRT municipalities plus Edina, voted in favor of spending an additional $150 million worth of further improvements in the suburbs and $160 million to keep freight in Kenilworth and run the SWLRT through shallow tunnels.  In this plan, both freight and LRT would run on bridges over the Kenilworth Channel more than 200 times a day at 45 mph and crash walls would be erected at tunnel entrances and exits.  Instead of asking if Kenilworth was still the best route — since a basic premise and promise to Minneapolis of the LPA couldn’t be fulfilled — the Met Council has tried to force a solution in Kenilworth.  Minneapolis Mayor Rybak voted against the plan, citing too many vital questions unanswered. 

The Met Council stated at that time, however, that no more study was needed and was poised to vote in favor of this plan, when Governor Dayton intervened in November to stop the full Met Council vote. The Governor requested further studies regarding freight rail options, the environmental impacts of shallow tunnels on Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles, and landscaping and greenscaping following the required vegetation clear cutting in the Kenilworth Corridor.

Nonetheless, the options on the table in January 2014 — co-location with shallow tunnels or rush-order freight reroute with afterthought mitigation — are not what were promised to the City of Minneapolis.  The Met Council and County officials are currently applying extraordinary pressure on Minneapolis officials to drop years of planning and promises, to disregard serious safety issues, and to comply with either co-location of LRT and freight or hasty freight reroute with nominal mitigation.  But, Minneapolis is not responsible for SWLRT planning failures. To the contrary, Minneapolis’ responsibility is to demand that promises be kept, and serious environmental and community livability concerns be fairly and thoroughly addressed, as pledged. Any community should expect and receive no less.

We all must demand at the very least a careful implementation of the DEIS planning process. Budgeting and planning for the Minneapolis section of SWLRT was left to the very end of years of planning which was fundamentally weighted in favor of suburban needs. It is now occurring in an atmosphere of Met Council desperation. The publicity and public attention is unusually amplified and often misleading.

We must not comply with this haphazard process in which promises are treated as expendable when they become inconvenient.  It sets a very bad, even foreboding precedent for future planning and civic relations in the Metro and state of Minnesota.

In 2014, the cost and complexity of dealing with freight rail along the Kenilworth Trail is finally known. Critical SWLRT routing decisions were guided and limited by now discarded budget and planning premises. With an increased, SWLRT budget of $1.55 billion and new Obama Federal Transit Administration criteria that properly value urban needs, LRTDR strongly believes the time is now to reroute SWLRT in  Minneapolis and to “do LRT right.”

We have seen that high quality design that thoughtfully preserves open space and enhances economic development is greatly valued in the SWLRT design. For Eden Prairie and Minnetonka, which have roughly 2-3 times both the open space acreage per capita and median household income as does Minneapolis, that priority is officially embedded, generously budgeted, and carried forward in SWLRT. While LRTDR does not favor a specific SWLRT reroute option, we strongly believe it is essential for the future of Minneapolis to find a new route for Minneapolis that provides effective transit and economic development opportunities, while maintaining the qualities of our city that are our legacy to preserve.

Amy Rock is a resident of southwest Minneapolis and member of LRT Done Right, a grassroots organization that advocates southwest light rail transit (SWLRT) design excellence that takes into consideration equitability, environmental impact, livable communities, financial feasibility, and safety concerns. More information can be found at LRTDoneRight.org