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200+ skeptics offer blunt appraisals of Southwest Light Rail plan

A second meeting — in St. Louis Park on Thursday — likely also will deliver critical messages.

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.
MinnPost photo by Karen Boros

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.

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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.

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“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.

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 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

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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.