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Southwest LRT proposal rumbles into ‘near-death experience’ territory

Is it time to pull the plug on the Southwest Corridor light-rail line? Or is it already unraveling in slow motion?

After more than a decade of debate, there’s still no consensus on the route, and the $1.55 billion project was postponed when Gov. Mark Dayton last week called for a delay of up to 90 days so more studies can be conducted and more alternatives considered.

The decision to kick what was an imminent vote down the road is raising questions about the project’s viability, the availability of federal funds and future political implications.

It’s not easy to discern a resolution to the dispute at the heart of the postponement.

Minneapolis opposes current plans for construction of two shallow tunnels next to freight rail and bike trails in the city’s Kenilworth corridor. Opponents say light-rail trains would be above ground for too long, disrupting bicycling and other recreational activities. Trains would emerge from tunnels to cross a bridge over a channel between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

Minneapolis has for years endorsed light rail at grade level in the Kenilworth corridor in exchange for the rerouting of its current freight-train traffic.

An alternative Southwest Corridor plan would have shifted those freight trains through St. Louis Park, making room for light-rail trains at grade. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak preferred that option; metro leaders rejected it.

After meeting with suburban officials on Tuesday, Dayton said he wants to find a way to reach consensus among the cities that would be served by the line.

‘Take a deep breath’

Dayton and Rybak both say they want the project to proceed. Rybak says he won’t allow the project to harm the Chain of Lakes. Dayton says everybody needs to “take a deep breath” and work toward a plan that Minneapolis can live with. Without its support, he says, chances of the project making it through the Legislature are “slim to none.”

So the Metropolitan Council, which is overseeing the project, will study the tunnels’ environmental impact and consider alternatives before a final decision is made.

Are we back to square one, with all options on the table?

Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat hopes not. “I’m satisfied that there’s been enough evaluation of all the realistic options,” he says.

If debate drags into 2014, he says, the issue will be in the hands of a new Minneapolis mayor and City Council – and who knows what their stance will be?

“Either we’ll accept this solution or something that looks close to it and move on,” Opat says, “or the project would be put on hold indefinitely, I guess. I certainly hope that doesn’t happen.”

But if there’s no consensus six months or so from now, he says, and the Metropolitan Council is unwilling to settle on a plan without the unanimous support of affected communities, he’d consider shifting attention to other projects, including the Bottineau Transitway.

Southwest LRT proposalCourtesy of the Metropolitan CouncilThe map above shows the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for the Project, selected by the Metropolitan Council in 2010.

Jake Spano, a St. Louis Park City Council member, says he’s still optimistic but is concerned that additional Southwest Corridor delays could cost the project its “place in the queue” for federal funding and “would have a chilling effect” on funding prospects for other metro area projects.

That’s a valid concern, says Laura Baenen, spokeswoman for the Southwest LRT Project. “What we do know and have said repeatedly is that this project is in line with other projects for federal funding and that significant delay can put us at a disadvantage compared to other projects,” she says.

Spano believes a solution still is possible, and he says it might not have to be a unanimous one.

The Metropolitan Council, he says, is required to seek consent of the cities along the proposed light-rail line, but “not to actually get their consent.”

“At some point,” Spano says, “people are going to have to make a decision about whether or not the project wants to go forward.”

Within reach

Cheryl Youakim, a member of the Hopkins City Council, thinks a resolution is within reach. “I definitely do not think we need to go back to square one,” she says. “We just have a little work to be done to make sure all the stakeholders have all their questions answered.”

Jami LaPray, co-chair of Safety in the Park, a nonpartisan grassroots group in St. Louis Park that opposes rerouting freight traffic, still has plenty of questions.

She wonders if the latest delay means long-ago discarded route options, such as an old plan to run the line through Uptown, will be reconsidered. It’s unclear so far, she says, whether relocating freight trains is the sole idea being reassessed.

“We’re disappointed with the process at this point,” she says, “and we’re concerned about how it’s going to move forward.”

Todd Klingel, president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, says there’s no reason for despair.

These sorts of “near-death experiences” come with the territory, he says. “The project is as important as ever and it will happen.”

Klingel, who supports the tunnel proposal, expects the new environmental studies to show that water quality won’t be negatively affected and the project will soon be back on track. He adds a caveat, however: A finding that water quality would deteriorate, he says, “would be an insurmountable impediment.”

He believes there’s general agreement that the Southwest Corridor project is critical to the area’s future.

“We need to be thinking about the long-term viability of the region,” he says, “and infrastructure of this type is essential.”

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Kevin Watterson on 10/25/2013 - 11:11 am.


  2. Submitted by Courtney Kiernat on 10/25/2013 - 05:01 pm.

    Disappointed in coverage

    I have appreciated the coverage of MinnPost on the SWLRT issue but this article is disappointing in that it naroowly defines the opposition to SWLRT. “Opponents say light-rail trains would be above ground for too long, disrupting bicycling and other recreational activities.” Concern about SWLRT on the Kenilworth Greenway goes beyond trail usage. The significant questions that remain about the potential de-watering of the Chain of Lakes as well as the abysmal projected ridership for Minneapolis residents are huge concerns. If SWLRT is a regional transit system than it should better serve Minneapolis residents. Minneapolis residents will make up 19% of ridership (33% of Henn County population) while Eden Prairie is 24% of ridership but only 5% of Henn County population. SWLRT benefits suburban residents (81% of projected ridership) which is no doubt good for the region. Minneapolis residents should not be expected to take the burden of SWLRT with very little benefit. We deserve a better SWLRT route for $1.55 bil price tag.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 10/28/2013 - 09:51 am.

      It Servces Minneapolis

      It is beyond ludicrous to say that SW LRT doesn’t serve Minneapolis.

      First, it runs right through downtown. In addition to solidifying Minneapolis as the economic center of Minnesota, SW LRT will serve the booming downtown population.

      The Royalston, Van White and Penn stops are critical opportunity connectors for North Minneapolis. Currently there is *no* reasonable way for residents of Near North to take transit to jobs in the southwest suburbs, the biggest jobs growth area in the metro. Minneapolis *needs* this link to become a healthy city!

      The connecting Midtown streetcar will bring the same access to communities all along Lake St. That is a huge improvement in transit service for those folks. With one line and a much smaller streetcar project, we open up thousands and thousands of jobs to lots of people who didn’t have access to them before.

      The lakes issue is a red herring. Engineers know how to deal with water. They do it all the time. Isles is only a lake because of…wait for it…engineering! Without engineering it would still be a swamp today.

      And you may deride those suburban riders but if you actually read the SW LRT reports you will learn that a good portion of those riders are from low-income communities, immigrant communities and communities of color. Demographics are shifting throughout the region and SW LRT planners had the foresight to plan for them, not react to them.

      SW LRT is the best engine for equity we have on the table right now. It’s beyond time to build it!

  3. Submitted by ALAN BELISLE on 10/25/2013 - 05:16 pm.

    West end problems

    There has been a lot of contention lately on the East end of the SWLRT route. Tunnel high or low, shift this or that? The whole West end of the route has problems too. The only “necessary” stop would be at the huge UHG campus at 62 & Shady Oak Road. West of that, there are no large groups of riders to serve, other than at SW Metro bus depot, which already has the SAME route covered with fast, efficient, comfortable buses. Getting the train there through traffic and swamps and over bridges is just throwing money away.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 10/28/2013 - 11:59 am.


      I guess it’s throwing money away except for the large number of jobs there and all of the people living in the area that see the line as their gateway to opportunity.

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/25/2013 - 05:56 pm.

    Run it through a ghetto and you’ll have no problem.

    The problem here is that “never have the voices of so few weighed so much against so many”, to turn Churchill’s phrasing on its head.

  5. Submitted by ALAN BELISLE on 10/26/2013 - 09:08 am.

    Through the ghetto

    Just ride the El from O’Hara to downtown Chicago and you’ll see the future of LRT-side housing. All those miles of slums are not a pretty sight.

    • Submitted by Julie Moore on 11/05/2013 - 11:22 am.

      I actually lover riding that line. It reminds me each time that we are not the land of milk and honey for all. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Not to mention, if a few more see it, you might get some involvement to improve it!

      • Submitted by Adam S on 11/05/2013 - 03:34 pm.

        You missed it.Alan was

        You missed it.

        Alan was saying the area along the corridor will become the new dregs of the metro area.

        This goes along with what the wealthy soccer stay-at-home parents in Minneapolis have been chirping; not in my backyard! They have been spouting how the train will automatically destroy all children within a 100 meter radius as it passes by. They think this is a sound argument to retain their wealthy land values and also proves you do not need to be intelligent to be wealthy.

  6. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 10/26/2013 - 04:01 pm.

    If St Louis Park is unwilling to take the freights, would it take the LRT route instead? The old Minneapolis Northfield & Southern right of way (whatever it is called now) goes north from Excelsior Boulevard to connect with the BNSF corridor coming in north of Cedar Lake. Proposed stations between Louisiana Avenue and Penn Av/394 would be eliminated and replaced by stations in SLP. I would think the SLP neighborhood groups would prefer LRT and its commuting benefits to freights in that corridor. Minneapolis would lose stations but also would sustain less impact. If the old deal was that Mpls would take the LRT corridor in exchange for being relieved of freights, a new deal should involve a similar tradeoff.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 10/28/2013 - 12:01 pm.


      So you want to wait another five years for this line and then have it skip serving St. Louis Park and Uptown?

      To me that’s a terrible tradeoff when we have a perfectly good solution *today*.

      All this bloviating is for a few wealthy lake dwellers who hold an inordinate amount of power. After this three month hiatus we’re going to be right back where we came from and Minneapolis will have to approve the Kenilworth alignment or the project dies completely.

  7. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/27/2013 - 06:12 am.

    Veto Power

    Is it as easy for local municipalities to block construction of new highways as it is for them to block light rail?

  8. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 10/28/2013 - 10:05 am.

    It’s the wrong alignment, but not because of the trail

    I find myself less concerned about the disruption of a recreational trail than that the overall routing is one made for suburban commuters and not city residents.

    We need to be prepared to give up recreational facilities sometimes for transportation, which is a more important goal, especially since those recreational facilities always have been placeholders for this train. We get too attached to such things and are too unwilling to give up something that’s popular with something that will ultimately matter more for the city’s future. And I say that as a biker who uses those trails.

    But, if you look at a map of the train on top of population density the thing simply makes no sense. It avoids uptown and south Minneapolis and instead follows a line where there’s either no room or no likelihood for dense, walkable development, which should be the whole point of a light rail line. Instead this will be a park-and-ride disappointment, a minor improvement over the already cushy suburban busses.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 10/28/2013 - 11:56 am.


      There is a huge redevelopment plan called the Basset Creek Valley Master Plan that will bring density to the alignment through Minneapolis. The Van White station is the centerpiece of it and Ryan Companies already has a proposal for the first phase.

      See my comment above for why this alignment is super important for Minneapolis. We have to think of the transit *network*, not just a single line. This line is a piece of a network that is going to open up opportunity to thousands of people. It does not have to run through Uptown to serve Uptown. In fact the Midtown streetcar will serve many more people than an Uptown alignment of SW LRT.

      And why *shouldn’t* the suburbs be served by high-quality transit? We do actually want people to have choices about how to get around beyond the car, don’t we? Especially when a significant portion of those suburban riders are going to be low-income people. There are environmental justice communities up and down this corridor. It probably will serve more people from such communities than even Central Corridor. And it interlines with Central, meaning people are going to have direct access to all kinds of regional jobs centers, education institutions and cultural attractions.

      Those saying this is just a suburban commuter line are either seriously misinformed or deliberately lying. I know some of the latter personally, unfortunately.

      Of all of our LRT lines, this is the one that excites me the most from an equity perspective and I have been working on transportation and equity for a *long* time.

  9. Submitted by Jeffrey Heuer on 10/28/2013 - 12:17 pm.

    Uptown re-route

    With the fast growing population in the heart of uptown they need to figure out a plan to re-route the SWLRT through the heart of uptown (down hennepin to lake and over, or at least lyndale). The area is in great need of a much more efficient mass transit operation. Yes it would be a mess of traffic while building but would be best for the areas long term needs. Possibly a tunnel all the way down hennepin?

  10. Submitted by Jerome Johnson on 10/29/2013 - 12:16 pm.

    Governor Dayton Meets the SWLRT

    So the SWLRT freight reroute fiasco is now in Governor Dayton’s hands. Lucky guy. After taking his deep breath, he should reject both the intrusive, socially unjust freight train relocation schemes through St. Louis Park AND the outrageous $160 million ransom Met Council has offered Kenilworth to keep the same freights at-grade through their neighborhood with LRT hidden underground in environmentally challenged tunnels. Each wastes taxpayer resources. He should, instead, tout the safe, viable, at-grade LRT/freight configurations through Kenilworth that cost as little as $35 million. Kenilworth could take legal action, but if it loses, delay-driven cost increases could restrict neighborhood mitigation funding. If they “win”, the corridor frees up for other uses that may eventually include clean, cost-effective bus lanes between, say, Miracle Mile and Minneapolis. This is, after all, a transportation corridor. SWLRT will be forced to a new corridor, but viable options are available west of Kenilworth, where developers will find transit oriented opportunities at places like West End and planners can establish new bus/streetcar transfer points at Louisiana Avenue and/or Blake Road. A reroute at this juncture is not ideal, but SWLRT’s potential to effectively meet broader regional mobility and development objectives is far too great to be held hostage to parochial and over-reaching special interests.

  11. Submitted by Julie Moore on 11/05/2013 - 11:20 am.

    Love the Debate

    I always love these debates . . . he wants its, she doesn’t, it will work, it won’t work. Look back at all of the debates about the original Hiawatha LRT line. It’s in, it’s heavily used, and nobody really talks about it anymore. Figure it out, quit wasting time and money with the process, don’t be selfish, and this to will pass.

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