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Let’s tell the full story when it comes to the Southwest Light Rail route

Fundamentally, the root cause of today’s challenges to project construction is that Hennepin County skewed the route selection process to ensure that the light rail transit would travel through the Kenilworth corridor and not through the Uptown area, even though the latter had more dense population, a greater number of transit-dependent residents, and a greater number of jobs than Kenilworth.

The light rail tunnel under construction in the Kenilworth Corridor.
The light rail tunnel under construction in the Kenilworth Corridor.
Metropolitan Council

I served from 1995-2017 as a city council member in St. Louis Park, as well as 11 years on Met Council’s Transportation Advisory Board. During those years I was an active participant in the planning process for Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT).

Your recent article is both misleading and incomplete regarding the causation of the current cost overruns and delays of this important project. While you noted that St. Louis Park objected to the relocation of the existing freight rail traffic from the Kenilworth corridor to St. Louis Park, you omitted both the rationale for this opposition and the fact that ultimately Hennepin County agreed with these objections, since the risk of derailment was substantially increased.

Fundamentally, the root cause of today’s challenges to project construction is that Hennepin County, which led the planning process until 2013-14, skewed the route selection process to ensure that the light rail transit (LRT) would travel through the Kenilworth corridor and not through the Uptown area, even though the latter area had far more dense population, a far greater number of transit-dependent residents, and a far greater number of jobs and other destinations than the Kenilworth area. It did so because, in the 1980s, the county bought the Kenilworth corridor and publicly announced that it was intended for use as a transit corridor. When the county convened the Policy Advisory Committee, which was tasked with selecting the route for the LRT, it then led the committee through a very skewed process in order to select the Kenilworth route and confirm its predetermined purchase decision.

I was an alternate member of that committee, and participated in almost every meeting. A brief list of how county leaders skewed the selection process includes, but is not limited to:

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– Declaring that the question of whether the freight rail traffic should be rerouted was not relevant to the LRT route choice, and refusing to permit discussion on this topic.

–  Declining to do any environmental, engineering, or economic analysis regarding possible rerouting of the freight trains, (simply declaring that the reroute would occur), until forced by public outrage to hire an engineer to review this option.

– When calculating the Cost Benefit Ratio (a federal requirement when selecting routes, based on both the projected financial costs and the projected ridership), the county included the cost of a tunnel arguably needed for the Uptown route but did NOT include any costs for a tunnel in the route through the Kenilworth corridor, thus skewing the financial analysis.

– When calculating the cost benefit ratio, arbitrarily excluding all potential riders who lived in Minneapolis between West Lake Steet and downtown, for the stated (but highly questionable) assumption that all such riders would prefer to take the bus, thus further skewing the analysis.

– Dismissing the objections raised by residents regarding the impact of LRT construction on the condominium buildings adjacent to the Kenilworth corridor.

Sue Sanger
Sue Sanger
Based on all that (and more), in my opinion, when Hennepin County selected the Kenilworth route rather than the Uptown route and then handed it off to Met Council for implementation, it handed the Council a mess. It was inevitable that the Kenilworth route was fraught with environmental, engineering and other problems that collectively have resulted in project financial, timeline, and other problems.

I retained voluminous documentation of this process and have donated all of it to the St. Louis Park Historical Society. I will be happy to meet with you and walk you through the documents, and/or otherwise discuss this issue with you. I can also point you to others who were involved in this process so you can gain their perspectives. I hope you will take this opportunity to dig into the whole history of how SWLRT has been planned, including the actions of Hennepin County as well as Met Council.

Sue Sanger is a former St. Louis Park city council member and served on Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Advisory Board.