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Park Board ups the ante in dispute with Met Council over Southwest LRT

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board voted Wednesday to spend up to $500,000 to study a shallow tunnel option for the Kenilworth Cooridor.

The Met Council staff is recommending using new bridges over the channel to accommodate light rail, freight rail and a biking and walking trail.
Courtesy of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board took another step Wednesday night toward trying to force the Metropolitan Council to tunnel under — rather than bridge over — the Kenilworth Channel as part of the Southwest light rail project.

The board voted 5-2 to spend up to $500,000 to hire an engineering firm to study the feasibility of a shallow tunnel underneath the 100-year-old canal that connects Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis.

That decision came after an attorney hired by the board two weeks ago told members that the board has special standing under federal law to prevent federally funded transportation projects from taking or damaging parks and historic sites.

Byron Starns, an attorney in the Minneapolis office of Stinson Leonard Street, said federal rules — known as section 4(f) — require federal transportation officials to determine whether parks will be adversely affected by a project. If there are adverse impacts, and if the route is not the only “feasible and prudent” alternative, the owner of the park can force changes or a different route.

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Even if the federal officials determine the impacts are minor — “de minimis” in regulatory speak — the park board would have to sign off to allow the project to proceed as designed.

But the impacts of large new bridges and increased train traffic over a channel used by kayaker and canoers are likely to be far from minor, the board resolution stated. Noise is a particular problem, Starns said, given that “a quiet setting is a generally recognize feature or attribute of the site’s significance.”

Starns recommended having detailed engineering analysis in hand before deciding how to proceed, either to push the Met Council to adopt the tunnel — or to be able to show the adverse impacts of the current plans to federal officials.

The park board members supporting the hiring of engineers said they are not trying to stop or reroute the Southwest LRT project, which would extend the Green Line 16 miles, from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. But they have consistently advocated for a tunnel beneath the channel, and the engineering work was a job the Met Council should have done itself, board members said.

After preliminary studies of the costs and feasibility of the shallow tunnel, however, the Met Council staff instead recommended using new bridges over the channel to accommodate light rail, freight rail and a biking and walking trail. A shallow tunnel is part of the alignment, though only south of the channel, in an especially narrow part of the existing corridor.

The tunnel beneath the channel was estimated to add between $30 million and $50 million to the project, which now has a total budget of $1.64 billion. 

Some board members expressed frustration at feeling ignored by the Met Council. “Five hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money for the park board, said board president Liz Wielinski. “It’s a ballfield. It repairs a lot of roofs on our rec centers. There’s a lot of things we could do with that money. It is very insulting to me to be treated like we don’t count. We do count. We’re elected officials. Unlike the Met Council, I have an election certificate.”

“What we are doing is taking our responsibilities very seriously,” she continued. “We are going to spend money that we really don’t want to spend to do something they have chosen not to do even though they have the budget, they have the staff and they have the resources to do this.” 

The resolution was a surprise addition to the work of the meeting. It was not on the public agenda and only a few board members even knew it was in the works. One commissioner, Brad Bourn, was home sick but drove into the meeting once he heard of the resolution to object. He said the board should wait until its next meeting to give proper public notice. 

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The decision to move ahead Wednesday to hire the engineering consultants came only after Parks Superintendent Jayne Miller received an email from Met Council staff describing what they would do in response to the park board’s concerns about the impact of the currently planned alignment. The e-mail said nothing about further engineering work on the shallow tunnel option, but instead pledged to look at 4(f) implications as part of the ongoing environmental impact statement work.

The email from acting SWLRT project director Craig Lamothe also said the Met Council also would consult with the board over such things as landscape design and station design and to coordinate with parks on any mitigation projects related to 4(f).

In response to the park board’s resolution, a spokesperson for the Southwest Project Office, which oversees the SWLRT project for the Met Council, said the office “has been working with the Park Board for the last two years and is committed to continuing to work with them on the landscape design of the Kenilworth Corridor, the design of the bridge over the channel and the design of the Penn, 21st and West Lake Stations.”