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Southwest LRT tunnel issue recalls earlier route controversy

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.

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.
MinnPost photo by Iric Nathanson

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.

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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.