Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


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

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

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.

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. 

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.”

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Bruce Bruemmer on 10/02/2014 - 10:49 am.


    I wish the Park Board would weigh in on runway 12R on approach if they want to be concerned about noise effects on park property. I know, you knew the airport was there when you moved in. Well, the Kenilworth Spur was a railroad right-of-way before such development. I find the prospect of underground tunnels there much more concerning for its potential effects on aquifers and taxpayer pockets.

  2. Submitted by Adam Miller on 10/02/2014 - 11:10 am.

    From a lay perspective

    It is very hard to see how a tunnel would not be a much bigger risk to the channel and the lakes than the new bridges.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/02/2014 - 11:12 am.

    The stonewalling by the Met Council and its staff is breath-taking. The intend to proceed as if the Minneapolis Park Board didn’t exist and didn’t have stewardship duties toward our parks–including what the met Council apparently thinks is some dinky little canal whose users can be ignored.

    The decision to hire an engineering study for half a million is a brave act by the parks commissioners who voted for it. Think how guilty each of them would feel if they didn’t do everything possible to avoid desecration of a park amenity basic to the legend of our city lakes.

    We shoudl also look to see who wasn’t at last night’s meeting. Bourn made an extra effort, and we all would benefit from knowing who, among the commissioners, suddenly had something else that precluded their attending to their elected duty.

    • Submitted by Matt Touchette on 10/03/2014 - 10:55 am.

      The vote wasn’t on the agenda and the board wasn’t properly notified about it prior to the meeting, so you can’t belittle members not present for the vote (assuming they had legitimately more important responsibilities).

  4. Submitted by jake Gardner on 10/02/2014 - 01:42 pm.

    what’s the big deal?

    The park board says: “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.”
    OK, tell me.

    They go on to list noise. But doesn’t a train already run through the area? This is just adding more, and yes it will be noisier, but again it’s not as if a train has never come through this area.

    Park Board – I want to be on your side but you’re not giving me a compelling reason.

  5. Submitted by Brian Simon on 10/02/2014 - 02:08 pm.

    enough is enough

    Are any park board members up for reelection this year? I’m looking for someone to support who is against this grandstanding. The channel between cedar ? Isles may be old, but it does not rise to the level of being historically, culturally or architecturally significant. If this board is going to play political games, we need a new board.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/02/2014 - 05:00 pm.

      With the Park Board, at least you can vote them out, but…

      …not so with the Met Council !! To whom do they answer, besides the Governor who picked them ??

      This body simply has too much power in too many areas to NOT be accountable to the public.

      The Legislative Auditor recommended a change in governance of the Met Council due precisely to the fact they are not directly accountable to the public:

      “Maintaining an appointed Met Council would continue the Council’s accountability problems … Because Council members are appointed by the governor, however, they are not directly accountable to the public for (their) decisions.”

      Considering the apparent authority of the Park Board in this matter, was it wise for the Met Council to stiff the input of the Park Board ?? It appears purely arrogant.

      Suppose you believe the Met Council to have exceeded its bounds, or acted in an incompetent manner…whaddaya gonna do about it ??

  6. Submitted by John Appelen on 10/02/2014 - 03:45 pm.

    Electrified Trains

    What noise?

  7. Submitted by Eric Larsson on 10/02/2014 - 04:58 pm.

    This is about protecting our most important asset.

    Minneapolis’ chain of lakes is by far the most recognizable asset in our region. Do we want to risk it to serious train accidents?

    And, just as important, if you had $2 billion to spend, would you spend it on a new toy train system to replace the existing Southwest Transit bus system?

    This entire project exists only to line the pockets of wealthy developers, while sticking us with the tab.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/04/2014 - 11:07 pm.


      Freight trains already run through the corridor, so you already have the risk of serious train accidents. Other than a diesel fuel spill, what would an LRT train add to the risk factor?

      Oh wait–those trains are electric.

  8. Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 10/02/2014 - 09:12 pm.

    Lake Street

    As an outsider, can someone explain to me why these bridges are any different than bridging Lake Street over the channel that links Lake of the Isles with Lake Calhoun? Does Lake Street going over that channel – which I suspect is much more obtrusive than the light rail bridges will be – diminish the park system? $500,000 is a lot to spend titling at a windmill.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 10/03/2014 - 01:26 pm.

      They aren’t

      There are existing bridges over the channel in question, two for roads, one shared by heavy rail & the Kenilworth trail. Neither the channel itself nor the rail bridge are particularly pleasing, aesthetically.

      While the lakes are certainly ‘crown jewels’ in the park system, this particular channel is not worth special preservation. Perhaps the board is attempting jujitsu – angling for improvements to that waterway in the guise of ‘protecting’ it.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/04/2014 - 08:51 am.

    Sad actually

    Every time someone in MPLS pulls a stunt like this it just gives them another black eye and strains relationships unnecessarily.

    I don’t think its been even a 30 days since the MPLS Park Board complained about budget shortfall in the next few years and now they’re dropping half a million on a futile attempt to modify the LR design? They admit they could use the money elsewhere… yet they’re gonna spend on that channel anyways?

    Listen, the weird thing about that channel is that it looks like the only stake the PB has is the channel itself, the land along it is all privately owned. And that’s a dodgy proposition because actual water cannot be owned in this state. Water itself and three feet of land along the shoreline are supposed to belong to the public. You’ll notice for instance that in the winter, the PB can require fees to use the cross country ski trails around the lakes, but they can’t keep people off of the trails they groom on the lakes themselves, including the channel. The claim that the channel itself is actually PB property is probably debatable. I’m not a lawyer but I know grey area when I see it. The bridges are existing features and it’s really unlikely that the PB could prevent necessary upgrades to existing features or the necessary replacement of existing feature in any case, especially when the existing features aren’t built on PB land.

    And check this out, the tunnel options have already been proposed, studied, and rejected for a variety of reasons amongst which are engineering problems. The shallow tunnel options were ruled out by engineers partly because of the danger they posed to the channel. So we could end up with a situation where even if the PB prevailed, environmentalist could end up suing the PB for endangering the channel. I think, but I’m not leagal eagle by any stretch of the imagination.

    Basically, I think the PB can ask for mitigation, but tunnels aren’t mitigation, they’re actual design features. And as some have already observed, it looks like the rest of the entire MPLS park system is taking a back seat on behalf of a short waterway between private property owned by wealthy residents. It’s a fair question, is this really about the Park System?

Leave a Reply