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Minneapolis park board gears up to fight Southwest LRT alignment

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The resolution approved Wednesday directed the outside lawyers to evaluate the Minneapolis 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.”

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.

Kenilworth Channel
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
At issue is how the alignment treats the Kenilworth Channel: a 100-year-old canal that connects Cedar Lake to Lake of the Isles.

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.

LRT shallow tunnel
Metropolitan Council
A 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.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/18/2014 - 09:46 am.

    Huh?

    The think new tunnels are less risky than the current bridges? That’s not due diligence, it’s stupid.

  2. Submitted by John Ferman on 09/18/2014 - 11:40 am.

    MPRB & SWLRT

    Tunneling below Kenilworth assumes the underlying soul cover over the berrock is understood. Given the nature of Lake of the Isles was once a bogland suggests the underlying soil is soft and porous. Might any tunneling so seriously disrupt the soil structure that the channel, Isles and Cedar drain. I would guess that with such ubcertainty that bridging would be safer except for the near shoreline bridge pilings.

    • Submitted by Steve Elkins on 09/18/2014 - 04:26 pm.

      Chain of Lakes Geology

      The Minneapolis Chain of Lakes is basically a series of shallow depressions in a bed of glacial till — basically sand and gravel. The water flows almost as freely below ground as it does within the lakes, themselves, as the guy who build the condos with subterranean parking along the northeast shore of Lake Calhoun discovered. He has to constantly (and illegally) pump water out of his drain tile system to keep his garage from flooding.

      The shallow cut-and-cover tunnel in the Met Council’s SWLRT design is sealed and will barely entend into the water table, so this type of “de-watering” will not occur. However, either a “deep” tunnel way below the channel or a shallower tunnel just beneath the channel would both extend entirely into the water table. Sealing them against the surrounding water would be far more difficult (and important). In addition, a tunnel extending well into the water table would keep trying to “float up” through the water table to the surface. including counter-measures to hold it down drives the price of these types of tunnels way up.

  3. Submitted by Gary Gleason on 09/18/2014 - 11:48 am.

    Route

    Run it through Uptown where the people are who want to ride it. Maybe the Park Board can get this project on the right track….

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/18/2014 - 01:06 pm.

      Agreed

      I could never figure out why the route up Hennepin and out via Lake Street and Highway 7 was not given more consideration.

      • Submitted by David Greene on 09/18/2014 - 09:51 pm.

        Hennepin

        You have the Lowry tunnel to deal with. That and it would no longer be an extension of the Green Line, requiring a transfer downtown to head east.

  4. Submitted by jake Gardner on 09/18/2014 - 01:06 pm.

    What’s the big deal?

    So the Park Board is willing to spend $22K and risk more delays because of the “visual disruption” of some new bridges? Maybe I just haven’t spent enough time over there in the woods to really get how awful these new bridges and trains will be, but honestly I’m not hearing their argument. Can anyone explain this to me?
    thanks.
    btw – I really do love the Kenilworth area, and how it’s a forest within the city. I just don’t think running some additional trains through there is going to ruin it.

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 09/18/2014 - 04:32 pm.

      “visual disruption” is in the eye of the beholder

      I have little patience for terms like “viewshed” or “neighborhood character” or “visual disruption” that seem to me irredeemably subjective. There are a lot of reasons not to support this project, but aesthetics seems like a terrible justification for what is sure to be a tax dollar sinkhole.

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