A unanimous Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board decided Wednesday evening to explore its options for challenging the alignment for Southwest light rail transit.
The first step: hiring the law firm of Stinson Leonard Street, who will be paid up to $22,000 to provide legal research on a federal law that protects parks and historic sites from federally funded transportation projects.
The resolution approved Wednesday directed the outside lawyers to evaluate the park board’s “rights and responsibilities under State and Federal law to uphold its mission to protect and preserve parkland for current and future generations.”
At issue is how the alignment treats the Kenilworth Channel: a 100-year-old canal that connects Cedar Lake to Lake of the Isles. The board has repeatedly asked the Metropolitan Council to tunnel beneath the channel rather that build new bridges over the top of the waterway.
The Met Council, as part of the planning process for the Southwest LRT, did look at both a deep and a shallow tunnel under the channel. Neither was chosen. The shallow tunnel would be cheaper — between $30 million and $60 million, according to park board staff based on Met Council numbers — but it would also be more disruptive during construction.
A shallow tunnel is currently set to be built south of the channel, where the rail corridor is at its narrowest point, making it impossible to accommodate new light rail tracks as well as existing freight rail tracks and pedestrian and bike paths.
The board staff has said that their concern isn’t based only on the increased number of trains that will pass over the channel, but also on the visual disruption the bridges would create.
Hennepin County, along with the five cities along the 16-mile, $1.64 billion project’s route, were required to give formal consent to the alignment. All have done so.
The park board, however, was not given an official role by the state in the process. Yet if it can show the federal government that the alignment disrupts the channel — and that the bridges are not the only “feasible and prudent” alternative — it could force changes. The federal rule at issue is known as Section 4(f) for the section of federal law where it was originally placed, in the 1960s.
Park Superintendent Jayne Miller stressed that the park board’s intent isn’t to stop the expansion of the Green Line, but to change the method of getting there.
While some commissioners were concerned about the cost and the effect any litigation would have on completing the light rail expansion, others said the board had no choice.
“We need to remember what it was we were elected to do,” said Commissioner Anita Tabb. “We’re really here to protect the parks. Obviously the Department of Transportation feels the same way because they have a law about this.We don’t know if there will be a lawsuit. Hopefully there won’t. What we do know is what we have done to date has not been listened to by the powers that be.”
Board President Liz Wielinski said the board and staff has “exhausted every polite avenue that we could” to get across to the Met Council its concerns. “They came back and said ‘it’s feasible to build a tunnel underneath the channel and then chose not to include it.”
The Metropolitan Council’s 2012 environmental review of the project acknowledges that the alignment that was chosen could have multiple Section 4(f) implications. It also says that the impacts would be minor and could be mitigated.
Met Council Chair Sue Haigh has also said the ongoing supplemental environmental impact statement will identify any problems and that the council will work to mitigate them.