Minneapolis has OK’d Southwest LRT. So what happens now?

MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Council Member Lisa Bender: “We made a very clear statement that we will stop this train if it threatens our city’s, our region’s, environmental resources.”

“Every large public works project clearly picks winners and losers, and your constituents are the losers,” Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman said she was told by a DFL elected official. “Good thing they can afford it.”

The remark was a reference to the relative affluence of the most vocal opponents of the Southwest Light Rail Transit route that was given final approval Friday by the Council — an alignment that cuts through the Kenilworth Corridor between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles as part of its 16-mile route.

Among the things those affluent constituents can afford, however, are lawyers. And a decision is expected soon on whether to challenge the approval in court. “We are all looking forward to a lawsuit,” said Mary Pattock, a leader of the group LRT Done Right. “We have the law on our side.”

Tom Johnson, an attorney with Gray Plant Mooty who’s also a former Hennepin County Attorney and Minneapolis City Council member, is representing opponents of the current plan. He said most of the discussion among his clients has been over whether it was permissible for the council to give municipal consent to the route before it had seen the results of a draft supplemental environmental impact statement. “They think the planning and decision-making is getting ahead of the environmental review,” said Johnson, who said he expects a decision this week on whether to file suit against the city.

The council members were clearly leery of a lawsuit while debating the issue last week. At an August 27 meeting, Council Member Blong Yang asked the city’s attorney whether the council was on sound legal grounds to approve before seeing the EIS. “The one thing that we do know is there is a deadline for this council to vote on the issue of municipal consent,” said City Attorney Susan Segal. “Whether or not environmental review is required prior to consent is an issue that may well ultimately be resolved by the courts.” 

The Southwest Project Office, the entity created by the Metropolitan Council to manage the expansion, was less equivocal about the legal issues. In a statement released immediately after the Friday vote, it said the state legislation authorizing the project recognized that municipal consent to the preliminary design plans and the environmental review would run simultaneously.

“The Legislature did not require or expect the environmental review to be complete before municipal consent,” the statement said. Once the EIS is published, probably in January, “anyone, including cities and the public, will have an opportunity to comment on the SDEIS.”

If substantial changes need to be made to the design of the project, the Met Council would have to seek further municipal consent, the statement said. And Council Members took action to put the Metropolitan Council — the entity in charge of the expansion project — on notice that its consent could be undone by an EIS that reveals new threats.

“We made a very clear statement that we will stop this train if it threatens our city’s, our region’s, environmental resources,” Council Member Lisa Bender said Friday before joining with the majority to approve the measure 10-3.

The draft supplement review, needed to look into issues raised by the addition of a shallow tunnel through the narrowest part of the Kenilworth Corridor (as well as other issues), has been completed and is being reviewed by Federal Transit Administration officials in Washington, D.C.

The fact the draft EIS is finished but is unavailable to the city until January rankled Council Member Cam Gordon. “What’s really strange is, it’s been drafted,” Gordon said. “There’s a bunch of information in some document somewhere and it’s been sent far away to some other governmental body. How’s that for working together and being good partners. … The federal government is holding that information and won’t even let us see the draft.” 

Another next step involves the issue of equity — specifically, using the expansion project to assure that the transit system serves communities with high numbers of people of color. To do so, the Equity Commitments Coalition has asked the Met Council, Hennepin County and the city of Minneapolis to commit to specific improvements and enhancements.

Those enhancements include creating better connections between North Minneapolis and the nearest planned stations, at Van White and Penn, so that the expanded line can be more useful to residents there. The coalition also wants more money spent on transit programs such as covered and heated bus stops, and better bus service.

And the coalition wants specific targets for hiring people of color to help build the line.

Detail of proposed Southwest LRT route through the Kenilworth corridor.
Metropolitan Council
Detail of proposed Southwest LRT route through the Kenilworth corridor.

The Met Council has formally responded to the requests, and coalition members want to get a similar response from the city, and then make sure commitments are kept, said coalition member Aasim Shabazz. And they would like specific timelines, “because it let’s people know when they can get involved,” he said.

The City Council directed staff to convene appropriate departments to draft a response and report back to the Transportation and Public Works Committee by Sept. 9. Council Member Kevin Reich said by adopting formal staff directions, that issue “goes to the top of their work list.”

Yet Council Member Alondra Cano said she has met with residents who don’t think the city is taking equity issues seriously. “They think we’re just talking about it: talk, talk, talking was the meme they shared with me,” Cano said. “They want to see how this language is being mirrored in concrete investments in their communities.”

Minneapolis was the final city on the alignment to give consent, following Eden Prairie, St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka. Hennepin County has also given its consent. With those in hand, the Southwest Project Office can move further along in the design process. The request for proposals for the advanced design contract should be awarded early next year. 

Advance engineering will also begin next year, which is also when the project will submit its application for funding through the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program.

An agreement with the FTA to cover 50 percent of the project costs (which inexplicably, is called a “Full Funding Grant”) is expected by 2016, which is also the year construction is set to begin. The service is planned to open in 2019.

All that, of course, is dependent on what happens with the EIS and any litigation that might be initiated.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Eric Larsson on 09/02/2014 - 10:21 am.

    The parks and lakes users are the biggest losers

    The Kenilworth Bike Trail is the second highest used route in the Minneapolis Park system. The Kenilworth Channel is the highest used destination for recreational boaters on the Chain of Lakes. The lakes themselves are a signature destination for visitors to MInneapolis. It is they who are the real losers from this expensive boondoggle.

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/02/2014 - 12:41 pm.

    Losers

    Minneapolis is hardly a loser on this project. After all, where does the line originate?

  3. Submitted by Britter Ritter on 09/02/2014 - 03:04 pm.

    Irony

    People in the Kenilworth Corridor may have paid a lot of money for their property, but they knew all along there was a freight line running through it. I think it is ridiculous for them to protest. Sometimes everyone has to yield to the public good, like it or not. Poor people have always done so.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/02/2014 - 03:15 pm.

    Where’s Edward Snowden’s local counterpart? We need one, to leak the draft environmental review that’s been done on the Kenilworth LRT route but hidden from our City Council. My guess is that the draft EIS is quite damaging, not to the bike or pedestrian trail, but to the lake system in SW Minneapolis, the jewel in the Parks crown. The water is the issue.

    The Metro Council says that Minneapolis may “comment on” the environmental report when, at last, it is released to the city some months hence? Can we reverse the city’s consent to the line? Or, do they mean Minneapolis can just stomp its feet and do a little tantrum screaming, uselessly?

    I am ashamed that Minneapolis’s city council didn’t have the nerve to vote No, and wait for the report at least.They all spoke against a Yes vote, but went that way in the face of it, leaning on Staff Directives and blah, blah, blah.

  5. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/02/2014 - 04:17 pm.

    bike paths are easier to move

    The Kenilworth trail may see high usage, but there is nothing particularly awesome about that route such that moving the trail would be a significant loss. By comparison it is much more difficult to route a rail line. Regarding the channel, is it not going to stay open?

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/03/2014 - 08:17 am.

    Incohernt oppostion

    The reliance of moving targets betrays a the incoherent nature of opposition to this Green Line extension. When the freight rail relocation turned out to be an assault on St. Louis Park rather than a simple re-route of freight trains the status quo, i.e. leaving the freight where it is became the big complaint. Then LR route itself, a route that MPLS agreed to years ago, let me say that again: MPLS AGREED to this route years ago, suddenly a project to move thousands of people in and out of the downtown MPLS became an equity issue and why oh why are we building here? When those complaints fall apart we end up with erstwhile environmental champions who wring their hands over the EIS report while demanding a DEEP TUNNEL that would obviously present a much greater environmental threat than the current plan. Not to mention the fact that all of the alternative routes some people have suggested also have environmental impacts.

    I wouldn’t hold my breath while waiting for the EIS report. This corridor isn’t a slice of pristine nature nestled in city waterways, it’s been a rail corridor for over a 100 years, no one is introducing anything that hasn’t already been there, (Why do you think there are TWO rail road bridges over the channel?) and the only tunnel is a shallow dig-and-cover tunnel through an area that used to service a lumber yard and a grain elevator.

    The bike trail and channel will remain in place, and the elimination of the deep tunnel actually protects the channel. That channel by the way is NOT the highest used destination, it’s not more frequently traveled than the channel between Calhoun and Lake of the Isles for instance. Which brings us to yet another aspect of the incoherent nature of opposition… sloppy information.

    And while we’re at it, why is there no walkway or bikeway along that “big destination” channel? And why no continuous pedestrian or bike trail around and connecting to Cedar Lake? The channel itself and the shoreline are public space. I think we all know why.

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