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Minneapolis Park Board could prove to be another obstacle for Southwest LRT

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The rail tracks and bike/pedestrian path over the Kenilworth Channel between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles would be replaced with new bridges as part of construction of the proposed Green Line light rail to Eden Prairie.

It’s known by a name that only a bureaucrat could love: Section 4(f).

Yet it could be the centerpiece of a legal challenge to the approved alignment of Southwest Light Rail Transit.

Known as Section 4 (f) for its original placement in federal transportation laws, the rule requires that transportation projects using federal money not take or adversely affect parks or historic sites. Under the  regulations, only if a route is the only “feasible or prudent” pathway for the project can the federal government approve it. And that would come only after steps are taken to reduce and mitigate the ill effects on parks and historic sites.

It is yet another potential headache for planners and policy makers trying to complete the Green Line light rail extension to Eden Prairie by 2019.

Park and Rec Board says concerns have been ‘neglected’

Wednesday, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board will vote on a resolution to hire a law firm to review its “rights and responsibilities under State and Federal law to uphold its mission to protect and preserve parkland for current and future generations.”

The $22,000 contract with Stinson Leonard Street asks the firm to look into a legal response to the route, especially where it impacts parks. While the park board was not given a formal role by state legislation creating the process to choose a route for the Southwest Light Rail Transit project, federal law does.

The board’s main worry is that the SWLRT route will damage the trail that runs through the Kenilworth Corridor, and the water channel beneath the path that connects Cedar Lake and the Lake of the Isles. “The board has real concerns,” said parks Superintendent Jayne Miller. “We have, in a proactive and non-confrontational way, worked with Hennepin and the Met Council. But the board is concerned that those concerns have not been addressed and in many ways have been neglected.”

Sue Haigh, chair of the Met Council, said two weeks ago that the council “continues to work with interested parties as we move to final engineering and design. We’ll listen to the park board on their concerns.” 

And Haigh said the council will respond to any issues raised by the supplemental EIS. “The whole purpose is to identify environmental impacts that can be mitigated,” Haigh said. “The impact on the environment is incredibly important to us as an organization.”

Met Council says impact on parkland will be ‘minor’

The Metropolitan Council’s 2012 environmental review of the $1.64 billion, 16-mile expansion acknowledges that the alignment chosen could have multiple Section 4(f) implications. It also says that the impacts would be minor and could be mitigated.

The park board isn’t so sure. The selected route is along an existing rail right of way that includes a section of the Kenilworth Corridor. Now used for bike and pedestrian paths, the trail would ultimately share the space with light rail and — in this key section — freight trains.

Disrupting the trail itself does not trigger Section 4 (f), the 2012 EIS states. But the spot where the trail and tracks cross over the channel between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles is different. It is not only clearly parkland but it is historic as part of the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway, which has been nominated for placement on the National Register of Historic Places — all of which potentially trigger both the park protection and historic site protections of Section 4(f). Its nomination the National Register also brings in protections under federal historic preservation laws.

The EIS states that the existing timber bridges over the channel are considered “non-contributing” elements of the Grand Rounds; removing them would not raise historic protection issues. (The EIS did say the replacement bridges could be considered adverse impacts on the channel if they weren’t designed to meet federal preservation standards.)

Park board opposes shallow tunnel option

The Park Board doesn’t believe new bridges over the Kenilworth Channel are the answer, no matter how well they are designed. They believe the increased rail traffic that will pass over such bridges are disruptive to the use of the channel by canoeists and kayakers. In a resolution passed on May 21, the board refers to the planned bridges as “massive at-grade infrastructure on critical parkland.”

Parks superintendent Miller said the proposed bridges include large approaches on both sides and will be more than double the width of the current bridge. “It’s not just the trains but the visual impact,” she said. “The park experience will change in a dramatic way.” 

The board resolution from May stated that there are, in fact, “feasible and prudent” alternatives to routing light rail trains through the Kenilworth Corridor, and that the only way to use the route without causing harm to the channel is to tunnel beneath it. Yet a so-called deep LRT tunnel would add between $170 million and $180 million to the project costs.  

In the resolution, the board “states its determination that the project as currently proposed to bridge LRT over the Kenilworth Channel is likely not the most feasible and prudent alternative and therefore the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board will not grant project consent under Section 4(f) … until greater analysis occurs and project plans are modified.”

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Negative impacts of increased train traffic and large new bridges over the Kenilworth Channel has the Minneapolis park board considering legal challenges to the alignment.

While there have been conversations between parks and the Met Council staff and between parks and the city of Minneapolis, the basic alignment remains the same. The only change regarding the corridor is the elimination of one of two shallow tunnels that were to carry light rail trains north and south of the channel. The north tunnel was removed from the plan and trains will now go underground in an especially narrow section south of the channel where the right of way is not wide enough to accommodate freight rail, light rail and the bike-pedestrian path.

The May 21 resolution was only the latest in a series of statements made by the park board — first in December 2012 and again last summer — that opposed the shallow tunnels and bridge plan. Last February, the park board called on the Met Council to conduct detailed engineering on the feasibility and cost of a deep tunnel.

This week’s proposed resolution offers a reminder to the Met Council of the park board’s longstanding concern over the impacts to the trail and the channel.

“Since 2012, the MPRB has consistently and regularly communicated, through public Board actions, its concerns and position regarding the Southwest Light Rail Transit options,” the proposed resolution states.

MPRB discussing response to alignment approval

What will the park board do? That has been one of the major unanswered questions as the Met Council moves toward getting final funding for the project. The proposed resolution strongly suggests that the board will challenge the alignment and lack of a deep tunnel beneath the channel. The board could refuse to consent to the route.

The agreement with the law firm hired by the park board says the $22,000 will cover legal research and opinions regarding the board’s rights under Section 4 (f) and other environmental laws, but it does not cover negotiations with other parties or actual litigation. Should the board decide to pursue litigation, “the scope of work, budget and fees and expenses will be re-negotiated to reflect the increased scope of work.”

Anita Tabb, the park commissioner whose district contains the Kenilworth Corridor, said the board and staff are talking about how the board will respond to the approval of the alignment by Hennepin County and the five cities it will pass through. The board is also waiting to hear back formally from the Met Council but remains committed to protecting the parks and lakes. “The reason people tend to love Minneapolis is because of the parks and natural spaces,” Tabb said. “It’s what draws people to the city.”

Section 4(f) dates to 1966 and came in response to a Texas plan to route a highway through the Brackenridge-Olmos Basin Parklands. Later, in upholding the law, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote that the section “is a plain and explicit bar to the use of federal funds for construction of highways through parks — only the most unusual circumstances are exempted.”

If the impacts are minor — “de minimis” in the rules — the federal government can approve a project.  According to the EIS, a “de minimis” impact on parks and recreation areas  “is one that will not adversely affect the features, attributes, or activities qualifying the property for protection under Section 4(f).”

The EIS states that the effects in the Cedar Lake and Lake of Isles vicinity can be reduced through mitigation efforts and “it is likely that these impacts would be found to be de minimis if these impacts cannot be avoided entirely.” 

Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/15/2014 - 10:43 am.

    What Parkland?

    The corridor is not a park nor is it owned by the MPLS parks. And that channel, I remind everyone, is an artificial channel, not a natural feature of the lakes. The channel itself is an environmental hazard because it provides an avenue for invasive species into Cedar Lake from Lake Calhoun. AND besides the water itself, there is no public access or parkland along the channel.

    We just saw an article in the Strib about how crunched for money the MPLS park board is, and now they’re going to dump funding into lawyers?

    Ooooooo K.

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 09/15/2014 - 11:48 am.

      What’s artificial?

      The channel may be artificial — constructed by humans as opposed to natural — but so is every park in the city.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/15/2014 - 12:23 pm.

        Nor are the islands

        The Islands in Lake of the Isles are not natural features either. My point is twofold: 1) If we’re going to talk about the effects on the environment we can’t assume the parks themselves or their features are benign, protecting the park isn’t necessarily the same as protecting the environment. 2) The channel itself is the only park feature that MPLS could claim to be concerned about, and it doesn’t even look like part of the MPLS park system because it’s inaccessible without a boat.

        A lot of people seem to think that this rail corridor is part of the MPLS park system, I just think people should be clear… it isn’t. MPLS doesn’t even maintain it, Henn Co. maintains it.

        • Submitted by William Anderson on 09/15/2014 - 01:03 pm.

          A straw man – no one thinks or is confused about the Kenilworth Trail being parkland.

          Next arguments:

          The parks themselves are an environmental hazard and therefore the Park Board is seeking to protect an environmental hazard.

          The Kenilworth Channel is not a part of the park system so the Park Board is protecting an area that is not under their control.

  2. Submitted by jody rooney on 09/15/2014 - 11:31 am.

    No adverse impact in an environmental statement

    can stop actually stop a project. The hierarchy of solutions is generally avoid, minimize, mitigate. It will ultimately be subject to a political decision or court decision and I don’t see anything here that can’t be mitigated.

    Explanation of the law. Note that there requirements are feasibility, since transportation generally avoids section 4(f) like the plague this is probably the most feasible alternative.

    Grand Rounds is designated historic by FWHA according to the park boards web site.

    It seems that the addition of a train through the corridor is as legitimate as bike paths.

    Although if you really wanted to follow the old vision of Mr. Cleveland let’s bring the horses back. That would be about a 2 to 3 day trip so think of all the economic activity it would stimulate.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/15/2014 - 12:13 pm.

      Grand Rounds?

      Neither the Kennilworth, Greenway, nor the Cedar Lake trails are part of the Grand Rounds.

      I think parts of them are Three River’s territory.

      • Submitted by William Anderson on 09/15/2014 - 12:53 pm.

        I remind everyone, that the Park Board did not say those areas were part of the Grand Rounds. Implying it did is a fallacious argument of the red herring and straw man variety.

        Arguing that an area of a park is “not natural” and therefore does not count as legally as parkland is specious. Another implication of this line of reasoning is that because the park system was “created” and not “natural” that it is not worth preservation or protection by the Park Board.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/15/2014 - 02:10 pm.

          I remind everyone that…

          They should read the comments they’re responding to. Ms. Rooney does not pretend to be speaking on behalf of the Park Board.

          • Submitted by jody rooney on 09/15/2014 - 06:39 pm.

            I’m just going by what’s in the article

            “The EIS states that the existing timber bridges over the channel are considered “non-contributing” elements of the Grand Rounds; removing them would not raise historic protection issues. (The EIS did say the replacement bridges could be considered adverse impacts on the channel if they weren’t designed to meet federal preservation standards.)”

            The EIS placed them in the elements of the Grand Rounds. So is it or isn’t it?

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/15/2014 - 11:51 am.

    The Park Board is simply being prudent and proactive with their move to hire legal advice. The channel (even Loring Park’s lake is man-made, after all! So is Lake of the Isles itself–let’s be real here) is part of the parks system.

    As a resident and taxpayer in Minneapolis, I’m glad to see the Park Board being very, very, very careful of the treasures it oversees. And All Hail! section 4(f)!

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/15/2014 - 11:59 am.

    It’s about control

    It’s an ego problem. The park board is feeling overlooked & wants a seat at the table.

    • Submitted by jody rooney on 09/15/2014 - 06:41 pm.

      From what I know of the Park Board trying to

      grab money from Greater Minnesota it sounds like the kind of group that might be miffed if they were slighted.

  5. Submitted by John Clouse on 09/15/2014 - 12:37 pm.


    The current Southwest LRT route seems to favor commuters from the suburbs rather than local riders in the corridor area.
    Therefore, why try to artificially route it near population centers in Minneapolis but around the lakes and parks somewhere to the west.
    If the line is truly meant to serve the city, then it needs to be routed down Hennepin Ave. to Lake Street then west.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/15/2014 - 02:23 pm.

      OMG John’s right!

      And here I thought the whole idea was to build a LR so that wealthy Kennilworth residents can get to the Guthrie. HOW DID I NOT SEE THIS BEFORE?

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/20/2014 - 02:24 pm.

      Rail Options

      Comments like this one demonstrate that many people simply don’t understand the roles of different rail options. Heavy rail is designed with a few stops and long hauls to get commuters to town.

      LRT goes shorter distance, more stops, and links regional commercial and entertainment districts.

      What the Henn/Lake area needs though is something completely different. With a lot of bars, restaurants, and shops, it’s best served with a train that makes frequent stops to let patrons on or off. Every other block would be about right.

      That demographic would best be served with a streetcar, not light rail. Short distances with frequent stops. It’s all about the application of the right tool for the right purpose.

  6. Submitted by John Barr on 09/15/2014 - 12:37 pm.

    What was there first?

    As a resident of Ardmore, PA with 100 electric trains running silently in my back taking people to work every day who are not clogging our streets and highways, trains that are more quiet than the traffic at the end of my driveway, and as a buyer of a home in Hopkins anticipating the planned rail extension, all this NIMBY delay stuff should make folks remember what was there in the first place- RR tracks and trains. I enjoy the city’s lakes as I ride my bike over this and other bridges for hours at a time, but If these park folks have any GREEN bona-fides, they would be 100 % supportive of rails going west instead of lawyering-up.

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 09/15/2014 - 02:48 pm.

      Pleased to meet you, Mr Barr –

      Bala-Cynwyd, myself (LMHS ’74).

      And I agree with you. My concern is with the effectiveness of the routing itself for transit/development purposes. But though the Kenilworth Trail is one of my favorite bicycling microenvironments, it’s not pristine and co-location with LRT wouldn’t do anything but remind me happily that folks in my community see past autocentricity.

  7. Submitted by Steve Elkins on 09/15/2014 - 02:08 pm.

    Historic Rail Corridor

    The first railway was constructed through Kennilworth in 1871, more that 40 years before the channel was dug. There is a historical map of the Dan Patch railway available online showing that passenger rail service was extended through the corridor for the first time the very year that the channel was dug. The SW LRT line and the freight line will be built entirely within this historic railroad right of way. Maybe the County and the Met Council should seek historic status for the railway corridor?

    If the park board wants to be good stewards of the channel, they should begin by maintaining it. The last time I paddled my kayak through the channel, it was filthy and decrepit. All the way through, I was praying “please don’t let me capsize in the middle of all this gunk”.

  8. Submitted by Blair Tremere on 09/15/2014 - 06:00 pm.

    Park Board Selectivity

    Alas, as the so-called Blue Line Extension, aka, Bottineau Line was foisted upon Golden Valley, the caring Minneapolis Parks Board was at best benign. Indeed, this segment is sequentially behind the SWLRT, but the imposed line runs through Wirth Park which is almost totally within Golden Valley but owned and operated by the MPB. There was nary a peep when the city was pressured into signing on (with Crystal, Robbinsdale, Brooklyn Park, and OH, YES, the City of Lakes who voiced NO protest about the alignment through Wirth.

    Perhaps lessons will be learned and wisdom will prevail with the SWLRT to the benefit of other communities to the north. However, as we are all learning, the train has left the station…..

  9. Submitted by John Hemak on 09/18/2014 - 02:02 pm.

    SWLRT is a waste.

    It seems to be overlooked that this boondoggle project is a giant waste of taxpayers money.

    It has been shown over and over that bus transportation is faster, more flexible, and less expensive in both the short term and long term. If the city people don’t have enough stops to use it and the trip for the suburb people is slower than a bus, who is going to ride it?

    No group seems to be happy with the project so why waste a billion or two (depending on your tunnel choice)?
    There is a lack of common sense in this whole discussion.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/20/2014 - 09:27 am.

    Minnpost coverage and Titles

    One thing bothers me just a titch about Minnpost coverage of this issue; they seem to write somewhat alarmist titles that exaggerate the potential of these so-called obstacles.

    We have one legal action by a coalition of home owners, and another potential action by the Park Board. Neither of these really has a chance of seriously delaying or modifying the plan at this point.

    I’m not a lawyer but I know that you need ask the court for something, some kind of remedy, and you need to have standing of some kind to do so.

    You can’t buy property adjacent to an existing transportation corridor and then dictate how that corridor is used or developed. You can ask for mitigation under some circumstances, but in this case, an owner of a million dollar home can’t demand a $100+ million tunnel or reroute. Rather, you may demand it, but you’re not going to get it. It would be cheaper to simply buy out the homes and tear them down. Since mitigation and some funding for it have already been agreed to, I don’t know what more these homeowners can ask for? I don’t think you can ask for mitigation that far exceeds the value of your property.

    Likewise, the Park Board may demand that relatively inexpensive bridges that have spanned the channel safely and effectively for 100 years be replaced by $100 million tunnels UNDER the channel, bu it’s not going to hapen. There’s no reason to think that the Park Board can legally compel such a design change because the bridges and train corridor are existing features. The only thing that’s changing is the traffic over the bridges, and that’s been changing one way or another for a 100 years without the PB’s consent. Again, the PB can ask for mitigation, but since that’s already in the agreement there’s not a lot more they can request. The PB would have a better chance of fighting new tunnels that is would forcing their construction. The argument that new bridges will have some kind of new adverse affect on the channel that the current bridges don’t have appears to a specious argument.

    On the other hand, as someone here as already pointed out, the PB is just being responsible. Lawyering up makes sense on one level because the PB may have to compete for those mitigation dollars in the future. There is however a huge difference between lawyering up for mitigation dollars and trying to change the actual design of the project or somehow reroute it.

    Most likely, these two groups and their lawyers will end up fighting each other for mitigation dollars in the future, but they’re not going to force major design changes much less a different route.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/20/2014 - 02:31 pm.


      You can’t really blame Minnpost for a provocative headline as that’s a primary marketing technique of all news organizations. Drama sells and they all want eyeballs for their product so they can sell advertising and keep the lights on.

  11. Submitted by William Anderson on 09/26/2014 - 01:25 pm.

    Property owners are not dictating.

    Hennepin County failed to ensure it could move the freight before they pushed Minneapolis to accept the alignment the County wanted. This failure has led to their and the Met Council dictating, forcing, and bullying SWLRT in Minneapolis in a manner that no other municipality involved would accept.

    The freight planning blunder committed by Hennepin County would rise to malpractice in other professions. There is no accountability or penalty for this public failure.

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