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Southwest LRT tunnel issue recalls earlier route controversy

MinnPost photo by Iric Nathanson
A tunnel became the essential link that enabled the Hiawatha roadway and, later, the Hiawatha LRT (now known as the Blue Line) to get built.

The Met Council may be digging itself into a new hole in an effort to resolve the current impasse over the route for the Southwest LRT. To its critics, the light-rail project is a financial black hole as projected costs keep escalating. But this latest hole is more than a figure of speech. It involves the construction of a tunnel through the Kenilworth corridor for the 15-mile light rail line from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. The tunnel, slightly more than a half mile long, is intended to  mollify residents along the corridor who have been resisting efforts to run the LRT line through their neighborhood if freight-rail trains continue to use the  same route.

If the Met Council succeeds in using the tunnel to move the stalled LRT project forward, it will be the second time in recent history that local transportation planners have dug underground in order to deal with a vexing controversy involving a highly prized natural amenity.

The origins of the earlier controversy extend back to the early 1960s, when state highway officials began making plans to convert Highway 55 to a freeway with up to six lanes between downtown Minneapolis and the Crosstown at 62nd Street. In the beginning, the Minneapolis Park Board acquiesced to the initial highway plan, which would have ripped out a corner of Minnehaha Park. Later, with a change in leadership, the Park Board took a harder stance and moved to block efforts by the highway department to acquire five acres of parkland just west of the Minnehaha Falls.

Plan avoided Minnehaha Park

In response to pressure from park officials, the state agency came up with a new plan, which swung the roadway to the west and avoided Minnehaha Park all together. But the new plan would have eliminated more than 300 homes and a dozen commercial buildings along the highway route. Soon, area residents started to complain about the project that threatened to disrupt their neighborhoods.

Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, the neighborhood protests were orchestrated by a group of community leaders who decided that they wanted to be more than NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard). This farsighted leadership group realized that the Highway 55 controversy gave them an opportunity to move the debate in a new direction. They began advocating for a new form of transportation, just beginning to be known as “light rail” transit. The community leaders did more than advocate. They came up with their own plan, which would eventually serve as the blueprint for the state’s first LRT line.

As the discussions about Highway 55 continued at Minneapolis City Hall and the State Capitol, a consensus began to emerge for an at-grade parkway as an alternative to a depressed freeway, with right-of-way reserved for an eventual light rail track. Still, a question remained about the route of the roadway through Minnehaha Park. By now, Park Board officials and neighborhood residents were insisting that the new roadway not eliminate valuable parkland.

Eventually, the question was answered with an innovative plan to route the roadway and the light rail track through a shallow tunnel in Minnehaha Park covered with an earth berm. While Highway 55 would face later protests,  the tunnel became the essential link that enabled the roadway and, later, the Hiawatha LRT (now known as the Blue Line) to get built.

Formal garden on top

Today, the Minnehaha Park tunnel is topped by a lovely formal garden intended to evoke the landscaped park that occupied the same site just after the turn of the last century.

In 2014, the political forces buffeting the Southwest LRT are different from those that swirled around Highway 55 more than 30 years ago. Kenilworth neighbors appear to be less willing to compromise than their counterparts who were engaged in the early battles over what later became the Hiawatha LRT. For now, at least, city officials seem to be backing up the hard line taken by residents who live along the Kenilworth corridor.

In order to move the Southwest LRT forward, it may well be that a long hole in the ground is needed,  just as it was during that earlier time,  in order to break the impasse over a controversial transportation project.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/31/2014 - 07:06 pm.

    Riddled with errors- not really

    Earlier I wrote: ” I’m sorry but this story is riddled with so many inaccuracies as to almost qualify as fiction…”

    I’ve decided I have to apologize for my earlier accusation that Mr. Nathanson’s article is riddled with errors. I was unduly harsh and simply mistaken. I apologize.

  2. Submitted by Eric Larsson on 03/31/2014 - 02:05 pm.

    The SWLRT is not merely a NIMBY issue.

    I live near the planned route, and so the location got my attention, but I also live near the Uptown Greenway route, and I’d assumed that would be the chosen option, because it serves many, many more disadvantaged Minneapolitans, and the Uptown area is undergoing immense high-occupancy development. Traffic is already affected.

    Not only would the Uptown route serve Uptown, but it would direct ridership to Nicollet Mall – which is a major concern for downtown planners. The useless Kenilworth route delivers riders to the other side of the ballpark, completely ignoring the Nicollet mall. And for the same or less price.

    What bugs me is that the Met Council had this data long ago and still chose to go with the park route.

    Now – this year – we discover that the freight rail is transporting volatile ethanol in cars that the American Association of Railroads is lobbying to replace due to safety concerns. Ethanol explosions have caused major damage in the US four times since 2009. Last year Massachusetts banned the transport of ethanol through urban areas.

    The only reason they give us to keep proceeding with the misguided Kenilworth plan is to spend tax money now while we can…

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/31/2014 - 02:18 pm.

    Oh, and….

    I don’t know where the idea that 300 homes were saved from destruction came from. Around 160 homes WERE demolished along Hiawatha in the 70s in preparation for the “improved” route. That was all the demolition the plan called for at the time. Later on they demolished 8 or so more homes during Operation Cold Snap.

  4. Submitted by Iric Nathanson on 03/31/2014 - 03:40 pm.

    Hiawatha LRT

    In his comments about my LRT article in MinnPost, Paul Udstrand maintains that “the neighborhood was ignored and marginalized” during the development process for Highway 55.
    Udstrand is referring to the reroute protests of the late 1990s after the route for Highway 55 north of 50th Street had already been determined. My MinnPost piece deals with an earlier episode in the Highway 55 saga that occurred during the 1970s and 80s when neighborhood residents did play an active role in the shaping the roadway project. The option for LRT figured prominently in the discussions and debates during those years. The 20 page LRT plan, issued by the neighborhood-based Highway 55 Task Force in 1976, did, in fact, provide a blue print for the Hiawatha Light Rail line.

  5. Submitted by James Woods on 03/31/2014 - 08:12 pm.

    SWLRT

    Light rail destroyed Hiawatha Avenue. Takes me at least five minutes longer to get through towards the airport. Who would put up for that?

    Light rail will destroy Eden Prairie too. It should be a highway. And it can be paid by tolls; toll any person with a city address for leaving. We need to keep the socialist engines away from freedom-loving car-supporting suburbs, as God intended.

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