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200+ skeptics offer blunt appraisals of Southwest Light Rail plan

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MinnPost photo by Karen Boros
More than 200 people filled Minneapolis’ Kenwood Recreation Center gym at the first of two public meetings planned to get input on the SWLRT project.

They don’t like the proposed route of Southwest Light Rail through what is now recreational space.

They don’t think it serves potential Minneapolis riders.

And they said repeatedly that they don’t trust the Metropolitan Council to make wise decisions.

Those were the blunt messages from more than 200 people who filled Minneapolis’ Kenwood Recreation Center gym at the first of two public meetings planned to get input on the project.

The second meeting is Thursday at the St. Louis Park Recreation Center, where it is doubtful the messages will be much nicer.

“I am very, very late to this conversation,” said Dan Cramer of Grassroots Solutions, who was hired by the Metropolitan Council to conduct both meetings.

Large posters explaining the project surrounded half the room, with tables designated for discussion topics filling the floor space.

“There is a lot of frustration, there is a lot of anger, there is a lot of mistrust,” said Cramer, who had read transcripts of previous public meetings. “I am really sorry about that and I realize one meeting can’t change that.”

Participants divided themselves by discussion topics and spent an hour debating water quality, the light rail route through the Kenilworth Corridor, ridership by Minneapolis residents, as well as options for freight trains, tunnels and vegetation.

Their comments on freight trains and water quality will be forwarded immediately to two staff groups currently conducting studies on those topics. The groups’ work is expected to be complete by the end of the month.

Comments on all of the topics will be presented to “decision-makers” involved in the final plans for Southwest Light Rail line, which is expected to cost $1.5 billion.

“The hunger for federal money on the part of everybody in this process is trumping good planning and design,” said a representative from a freight-lines discussion table in his report.

His group said they would prefer the current three or four freight trains a day that travel through the Kenilworth Corridor to the proposed 200 light rail trains a day. The group favored moving the light rail line to St. Louis Park.

“There was distrust and fear, kind of a skepticism, of the whole process,” said a representative from a water-quality discussion group. “We are afraid of polluting and losing our lakes.”

“Most of the people at our table opposed the route completely,” she added. “There’s no room for development. Why not have the route go away from the lakes and to businesses it could help?”

A representative from the discussion group dealing with vegetation and green space drew applause from the crowd when he said: “At our table it was pointed out that the Metropolitan Council has allocated a great deal of money for suburban mitigation, close to $300 million, to move the alignment in the suburbs. Why isn’t this line serving a greater population density within Minneapolis?”

MinnPost photo by Karen Boros
Large posters explaining the project surrounded half the room, with tables designated for discussion topics filling the floor space.

He added: “This line runs through neighborhoods that are neither dense nor have a population that would use this corridor. It is not moving people who desperately need transportation.”

The general consensus of the crowd seemed to be that routing the line through Uptown was a better alternative than sending it through the narrow strip of land between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

“Uptown has a burgeoning population,” said a woman from another discussion group. “We’d really love to see southwest neighborhoods with dense populations served by mass transit. This alignment doesn’t do that.

“This current alignment favors suburban riders over Minneapolis riders, and it was based on federal criteria under the Bush administration,” she added, pointing out that the rules have changed under President Obama and now focus on urban density.

After the meeting, Metropolitan Council chair Susan Haigh talked about the mistrust expressed by many at the session: “A lot of facts have changed, so what people believed 10 years ago, we have different facts today, and we have to go forward, and I think that’s really distressing to people.”

 “This issue of alignment is something, I think, that has been decided,” she said.

 At this point, the route could only be changed if new information about the water quality in the lakes is discovered, she said.

“The key issue we’re trying to get at is — engineering plans withstanding — is there an alternative to locate freight rails outside of this corridor,” she said.

Once that question has an answer, attention would turn to the tunnels issue.

“We’re trying to figure out why the deep tunnel is off the table,” said a representative from another discussion group, which focused on placing light rail in a tunnel through part of the Kenilworth Corridor.

A deep tunnel under the channel between the lakes was proposed earlier in the process. That idea has been replaced by talk of a shallow tunnel that would surface to cross the channel on a bridge and then go back under ground.

“The deep tunnel was eliminated as an alternative because of cost,” said Haigh. A shallow tunnel would cost an estimated $160 million, compared with $300 million for the deep tunnel.

“I know there are people who would love to have us look at a million different alternatives, but we’d actually like to get this project built … by 2018,” said Haigh. “It’s part of a regional system.”

Thursday’s St. Louis Park hearing is expected to draw residents opposed to re-location of the freight lines there.

A second group of public meetings will take place in February

The final plans for the line must be approved by city officials in all of the affected communities. So far, Minneapolis and St. Louis Park are the only communities expressing opposition to the plans.

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Comments (9)

Other end of the route

After the new UHG campus, there are no sites with enough density to justify having the LRT run into Eden Prairie. The current plan runs through sprawling businesses areas where there is little need for LRT and no parking for commuters. Then it ends at the existing SW Metro ramp. SW already has this route well covered and duplicating it with LRT is just a waste of money. Is it too late to abort this boondoggle?

Why not the original railroad corridor

Have Met Council planners seen the hundreds upon hundreds of housing units recently built and still being added along the rail trench parallel to Lake Street in and east of Uptown? The construction has been nonstop for several years.

That area has huge and growing population density, and surely all the residents do not work in Uptown or even downtown; the southwest suburbs abound in offices and manufacturing.

I realize the trench creates a problem with light rail having to take property somewhere to turn north to downtown Minneapolis, and the big multi-line terminal planned is north of Nicollet and Hennepin Avenues. And I know that the rail line that for decades ran through the trench now ends at or before Hiawatha. But that's why we have engineers and planners -- to solve such problems, and likely for a good deal less than $160 million to $300 million for tunnels that threaten Minneapolis lakes.

That trench looks wide enough to accommodate both rail and bikeways. It used to have two rail lines through it, while the now-planned route has only one.

And, contrary to snide assertions in some news reports (not those of Minnpost), the people who live along the "Kenwood" route are not all a bunch of selfish rich folks. I used to live one city lot from the rail line.

It was looked at

Engineers looked at this option and rejected it for many reasons, among which were:

- It's more expensive, even given tunnels in Kenilworth

- It would attract fewer riders

- It would require more property takings

- It would impact more areas with historic designation

- It would be more disruptive, both during construction and in operation

- It would preclude the Midtown Corridor rail option from Hiawatha to the West Lake station

- It would duplicate existing bus service

The last point is somewhat subtle. For many people living the area a trip downtown via bus would be more convenient than the LRT because the bus stops are closer and the bus frequency is competitive to LRT. Furthermore, the LRT would go down Nicollet so those heading to Hennepin would also prefer the bus. For those heading from points south into downtown, there is no reason to make a transfer from bus to LRT - they'll stay on the bus. So the ridership projections through Uptown are somewhat less than one might expect at first glance.

Uptown will get upgraded bus service on Hennepin/Lyndale once bus schedules around SWLRT are worked out. Uptown will also get the Midtown Corridor streetcar rail, which provides a 15 minute trip from the West Lake station to Hiawatha. It's not like Uptown is getting left out of the transit picture.

I think about SWLRT this way. It will serve very transit-dependent Near North, providing a transit link to suburban jobs that has never existed before. The Midtown Corridor streetcar/rail will meet SWLRT at the West Lake station, meaning people headed to/from Uptown will have essentially the same service as if the LRT were routed along the Greenway. The Midtown Corridor will *also* serve transit-dependent populations east of Nicollet which would be left out in the cold with an Uptown LRT alignment. The SWLRT alignment through Kenilworth lets us serve two transit-dependent areas of Minneapolis instead of just one and Uptown gets good service either way.

Through Uptown

I just don't find a lot of these points convincing.

- It's more expensive, even given tunnels in Kenilworth
This is barely true anymore. Besides that if you're going to spend $1.5 B on a stupid alignment, you may as well spend $2.0 B on a smart one.

- It would attract fewer riders
This is often claimed by supporters of the current alignment and is so incredibly anti-intuitive that it really can't be offered without further explaination.

- It would require more property takings / It would be more disruptive, both during construction and in operation
If that's what it takes to do it right, that's what it takes. In the 50s and 60s we were willing to plow over neighborhoods by digging trenches a mile wide for freeways. Now we can't get a forty-foot right-of-way to run a light rail line that will actually strenghten neigborhoods by increasing density and walkability.

- It would preclude the Midtown Corridor rail option from Hiawatha to the West Lake station
The Midtown Corridor is a band-aid for not running the light rail through uptown in the first place.

- It would duplicate existing bus service
The logic of this one is the most confounding. Basically, we won't run a light rail though a dense neighborhood because there's already buses there (since there's people there), so we'll use this as justification for running it through the woods.

It's frustrating to delay this. But in the last decade there's been an entirely new wave of urbanism. We have so much better understanding of what's good for cities. And we know that the point of spending billions on a light rail line is to connect dense, walkable neighborhoods so people can live without cars. The politics of ten years ago was about begging suburbanites to get out of their cars (well, at the park-and-ride) to be ushered into downtown. The politics of today is asking them why they're living there at all, and if so, why they can't take the cushy commuter buses that already exist, perfect for connecting a park-and-ride to downtown. People want to live in the city now. Minneapolis has a goal of raising its population over the next decade, to be become more efficient and sustainable, and to create denser, more vital neighborhoods. We won't succeed at this with a decades-old rail mentality. And tragically we're applying it to Bottineau as well.

Transit-Dependent Riders

It's really insulting to have people say that the Kenilworth alignment won't serve transit-dependent populations. It has three stations that will directly serve the communities of Near North and beyond.

'm also really tired of hearing that SWLRT "won't serve Minneapolis." That's only true if you consider "Minneapolis" to be limited to the Kenilworth corridor. What about all the residents and businesses downtown, for example? What about the businesses and residents near the West Lake station? I've already mentioned Near North. It will even serve Uptown via the Midtown Corridor.

Serving Transit Dependent Populations

Mr. Greene has been a strong advocate for providing transit to residents of North Minneapolis, as we all should be. SWLRT is not the tool to provide that opportunity. Two of the three stations he references barely enter North Minneapolis and one (Penn Avenue) does not. The Penn Avenue station is a mile from Glenwood Avenue and might serve mostly the Bryn Mawr neighborhood; its proposed location (75 feet below 394 in the rail corridor) makes it less likely even that neighborhood will use it. Without some kind of circulator bus this stop will not serve North Minneapolis residents. Combined, the other two stations (Van White and Royalston) are expected to have 800 boardings per day in 2030 (about 2% of expected ridership). I suggest that many more residents would be served with a better designed Bottineau line. As for routing the line through Uptown, density is certainly there and, if using the Park/Portland alignment Mayor Rybak proposed, would serve transit dependent residents east of 35W, provide access to jobs at Abbot Northwestern, the Convention Center, and St. Thomas. There may be many reasons to choose the Kennilworth Corridor for the SWLRT but providing transit to North Side residents is not one of them.

David the number of

David the number of transit-dependent people within walking distance of the near North stops on this alignment are dwarfed by the current and potential transit ridership of a nicollet-uptown routing. Some of us are upset that large parts of the city that already have high ridership are being left out and ignored because of the focus on trying to get suburban commuters to ride transit. That's a great goal but not if it comes at the expense of people who are already transit-dependent getting shafted time and time again.

And please, a midtown street car connection is not a solution when it requires transfers to get almost anywhere. The buses from uptown, lynlake and nicollet are constantly stuck in traffic. There really needs to be a dedicated ROW or two straight into downtown.

Buses

My experience and observation makes me believe strongly that buses are a weak sibling to commuter rail. Buses:

-- Have to make frequent stops for passenger entry and exit. That makes them a very slow way to travel any great distance. Express buses (i.e. few stops) can reduce this problem but don't well serve people in central cities.
-- Are further slowed by high traffic volumes, icy streets and traffic lights. That can slow rides even more and also cause riders to miss buses to which they must transfer, leaving them out in the cold and making them late to work or appointments.
-- Are bumpy, noisy and, in the winter, chilly.
-- Run infrequently for those who need them after 6 p.m.
-- Tend to be seen as declasse, the travel medium of last resort. This is unfair, of course; people of many socioeconomic levels use bus transportation when it's convenient or saves them the cost of expensive downtown parking. But I believe that my perception is accurate (I once was bus dependent for three years, and I have ridden city buses from time to time for more than 50 years). Rail does not have that stigma. I believe that many people who will use commuter rail would never consider setting foot in a city bus.

Also: If people from the north need to get to the southwest by rail, they'll have to transfer lines somewhere. It's not beyond possibility that this could be done even if the southwest line were to run down the original rail trench instead of -- as one writer put it -- through the woods (chopping down a lot of the woods as it is built).

Elevated tracks?

I've only tracked the conversation half-heartedly, as I live just off Hwy 7 near Excelsior, and don't see much likelihood of LRT out here in the foreseeable future. (Ironically, we're pretty much on top of the long-gone streetcar tracks.)

I'm wondering what sort of discussion there's been of elevated rail ala Chicago and areas of NYC. I'm trying to imagine such a thing going down Lake St, for example.