It was a foregone conclusion that the Southwest LRT Corridor Management Committee would endorse the plan to send the proposed commuter line through shallow tunnels and over a bridge in the scenic Kenilworth Corridor between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. And so it did, despite the determined opposition of Betsy Hodges, mayor of the largest and most populous municipality in the project, who insisted that the project, as constituted, was unfair to Minneapolis.
That assertion was “astounding,” said Peter McLaughlin, a committee member and a Hennepin County commissioner. The line “will bring thousands and thousands of people to Minneapolis.”
In previous meetings about the line, emotions had run hotter than pizza ovens, and normally calm citizens turned purple with rage. But the 150 people who came to hear the proceedings at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park on Wednesday seemed somewhat dispassionate — possibly because they already knew how the vote would go. A few Kenilworth residents pleaded with Hodges to stand fast in her objections to the LRT plan. “Use every legal means at your disposal to fight this plan,” directed one of her constituents.
Hodges’ opposition could stall the entire project. Next week, the whole Met Council meets to hear more testimony. Assuming that it, too, endorses the plan, it will submit the project to all the cities along the line for ratification. If any refuses consent, then the entire project could come to an abrupt halt.
Well, maybe not so abrupt. The plan for the Southwest LRT, which would carry passengers from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, has been lurching ahead in fits and starts for the past couple of decades. Already its opening has been set back a year to 2019.
The latest standoff occurred last fall when Minneapolis refused to approve the LRT’s path along a shallow tunnel in Kenilworth unless the Twin Cities & Western Railroad Co. freight line that now operates there moved to St. Louis Park. St. Louis Park refused to accept the freight train because it would travel along a two-story high berm, divide the town, run close to a school and force the removal of several homes and businesses.
Hoping to settle the dispute, Gov. Mark Dayton delayed the Metropolitan Council‘s vote by 90 days to allow study of alternate freight train routes. An analysis undertaken by TranSystems, a Kansas City consulting company, identified a rerouting of freight trains through St. Louis Park, minus the berm and the school. TC & W, however, objected that the route wasn’t safe, and so the Met Council staff returned to its previous plan — to squish the light rail underground, rebuild the bike trails and nature walk on top and leave the freight train where it is now.
The only other dissenter in the 11 to 2 vote came from Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, who objected to the line’s newly hiked $1.683 billion cost. He argued that the project could save millions by moving the bike bath and running the LRT line at grade. He goes, he said, by the utilitarian principle that a project should produce the greatest good for the greatest number. “I don’t think this meets that threshhold,” he added.
Despite the pro forma nature of the vote, some 49 people provided testimony. They shook out into several groups and subgroups taking the following positions:
1. Build the darned thing already:
- Business boosters: In this category came the Business Advisory and the Citizens Advisory Committees, both of which are appointed by the Met Council, as well as the Minneapolis Downtown Council, which isn’t. They endorsed the plan on the grounds that moving ahead with the LRT would be good for the region. “This line will help connect employers and employees from all parts of the metro area,” wrote the business group in its statement. What’s more, by delaying, the region could lose its place in line for federal money (about 50 percent of the cost) and see costs climb further with inflation.
- Unions: Dan McConnell, representing the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council, asserted that the project would create “predictable streams of employment for our members.”
- Farmers, coops and others who use freight trains: Rerouting the TC & W railroad would “devastate our business,” put our hundreds of employees out of work, raise commodity prices and deny farmers ready access to world markets, they say. TC & W serves 10 cities; in eight it is the only rail service. TC & W’s CEO Mark Wegner testified that the current route is the only safe one available. Another rationale: Shipping by truck pollutes the air more than trains.
- Advocates for the poor: Isaiah, an interfaith nonprofit, respresentatives and others advocated construction of the LRT. Their rationale: It would contribute to something they call “transit equity.” They claim that the new line would help the poor, often isolated in job deserts, get to the job-rich areas and to colleges and training facilities. “We need accessible public transportation,” testified Asad Aliweyd, who operates the New American Academy, an Eden Prairie nonprofit that offers after-school training to East African immigrants.
- Tweakers: There were requests for the 21st Street Station in Minneapolis to be added back to the project, for more “robust” commuter stations, a plea from a property management company in St. Louis Park not to run the train through the wetlands park that surrounds his apartment development.
2. Nix the entire project:
- Kenilworth-area residents: The project will ruin the Chain of Lakes, draw off water from Cedar and Lake of the Isles, create noise, pollution, and possibly lead to a disastrous Casselton, N.D., type train derailment where 400,000 gallons of crude oil created a fireball that forced evacuation of the entire town.
- Minneapolis residents: The Chain of Lakes is a national treasure, which faces environmental damage from a commuter train which would pass through the area 220 times a day. The construction of 394 had dewatered Theodore Wirth Lake, contended one, and co-location of the freight and LRT trains in Kenilworth could do the same to Cedar and Lake of the Isles. “We are the City of Lakes, not the City of Retention Ponds,” he said.
- Route-rethinkers: Some people, who had no particular group affiliation, argued that, as planned, the SWLRT has too few stops in Minneapolis (a station on 21st Street was dropped because it would be too expensive), bypasses disadvantaged city residents and instead benefits suburban commuters. The line would encourage people to live further out of town, creating even more sprawl. The train would travel through Kenwood, one of the least dense neighborhoods in the city, whose residents probably wouldn’t even ride on it. If so, the entire project could become an ignominious failure. Robert Carney, who ran for Minneapolis mayor in the recent election, said that more logically, the train’s path should travel through heavily populated Uptown. The Met Council had deemed such a plan infeasible because it would require building tunnels. “But now we’re building tunnels under a bike path,” he said. Like several others, he suggested that the council put the entire project on hold and proceed with the next scheduled LRT project, the Bottineau line.
3. Just plain mad: St. Louis Park has won the dispute; freight trains won’t be running through their suburb, but residents seem angry anyway. According to them, the spoiled folks of Kenilworth put recreational bike trails ahead of the safety of children whose school would be near a rerouted train. “They’ll jeopardize the safety of kids for the convenience of people with bikes,” said one.
4. Fix it: Several people argued that running the freight train through the corridor was supposed to be a temporary fix; St. Louis Park had made a deal to accept the freight train in exchange for $55 million in state funds used to clean up an industrial site. Now it had reneged. They all blamed Hennepin County for failing to resolve the problem years earlier.
Among this group was Hodges, who stood fast in opposition to freight trains in the Kenilworth Corridor. The question isn’t about support of mass transit — she is all for that, she said; it’s about a “fundamental failure” of the Metropolitan Council to stand up to the freight line and to ask the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that mediates such disputes, to allow a rerouting. “We should not give the railroad veto power over us,” she said. “I won’t vote yes.” she said.
Now the question is: Can and will the Metropolitan Council force Minneapolis to gulp down the plan? Look out for lawsuits around the next bend in the track.