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Dayton plays hardball with Minneapolis Parks Board

Dayton said he would reduce state support for the Minneapolis park system — because of the Park Board’s ongoing resistance to the Southwest LRT alignment.

Gov. Mark Dayton: “In my view, if they have all this money to hire consultants … they don’t need all the state money that’s been allocated to them.”
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

It was one of the most prevalent rumors among opponents of the approved alignment for Southwest Light Rail.

Gov. Mark Dayton, the rumor went, had told members of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and their senior staff that resistance to the approved route, through the Kenilworth Corridor, would cost the board state funds.

Whether Dayton, a light rail supporter, had actually made the threat before or not, he did exactly what the rumor promised he would do Tuesday. In releasing his state budget proposal, Dayton said he would reduce state support for the Minneapolis park system — because of the board’s ongoing resistance to the alignment.

Dayton was nothing if not transparent about the move. The budget materials given to reporters before the late-morning briefing stated that the total of $3.77 million in reductions to the Park Board over the two-year budget period was due to “the Board’s continuing efforts to obstruct progress on the Southwest Light Rail Transit project.”

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Of the total, $1.26 million would have come out of the state general fund and $2.51 million out of the natural resources fund, money intended to help the Met Council and 10 local park agencies develop and maintain parks that are regional destinations (think Minnehaha Falls). The money that would be lost by the Minneapolis board goes toward annual operating costs.

When asked about it, Dayton said it was possible he would support restoring the money — if the Park Board ended it opposition. “In my view, if they have all this money to hire consultants … they don’t need all the state money that’s been allocated to them.” Dayton said. He described the board’s actions so far as “very irresponsible.”

By threatening to challenge the route with federal transit administrators, the board risks putting the Twin Cities behind others competing for federal rail dollars, Dayton said. “They shouldn’t be compensated by the taxpayers of Minnesota for causing this kind of mayhem.”

In a statement, Park Board President Liz Wielinski said she was dismayed at the governor’s budget proposal and objected to his painting the board as obstructionist. “I am extremely disappointed that the governor wants to punish the Park Board and more than 15 million users of  regional parks in Minneapolis because the Met  Council did not do their job in their pursuit of taking park land,” Wielinski said.

The board has taken several actions over the past three months to prepare a legal challenge under federal laws that prohibit federally funded transportation projects from taking parkland or historic sites. In September, the board hired the law firm of Stinson Leonard Street to advise it on federal law. In November, it hired the engineering firm of Brierley Associates, and has so far spent $493,775 to have the firm look into alternatives to the current Southwest LRT alignment.

The route between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s the means of crossing the popular channel. The plan approved by the Metropolitan Council, Hennepin County and the cities along the 16 mile Green Line extension envisions a new bridge over the channel. The Park Board majority prefers a tunnel, arguing that it would be less disruptive to the pastoral setting.

The engineers have reported that a tunnel is feasible and is now studying costs. That’s because only if an alignment is the only “feasible and prudent route” can it infringe on parkland. A tunnel that is too expensive might not be considered prudent even if it is feasible to build.

“The MPRB has a fundamental responsibility to protect parkland,” Wielinski said. 

Dayton has been publicly signaling his frustration with the board for weeks, even if he hadn’t named the agency specifically. In December, he told MPR News that “people who want to clog up the process” will get the blame if expanded transit for the region isn’t built. But in a letter to the board, former Met Council Chair Susan Haigh said neither the council nor Dayton would agree to any additional spending for a tunnel beneath the channel.

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Haigh’s successor, Adam Duininick, said that remains the policy of the council. Just one week into his new job, Duininck said he hopes to continue talking to Park Board leaders and that a meeting with Board President Liz Wielinski will be held next week. But, he said, “We’re both really stuck in our positions. The Park Board believes we haven’t looked at all the options and we believe that we have.”

Duininck said Dayton’s budget move is illustrative of the governor’s frustration with the delays. “I was surprised at the level of his frustration …,” Duininck said.

Mary Pattock, a spokesperson for opponents of the Kenilworth Corridor alignment who have filed their own legal challenge to the process, called the Dayton move “absolutely the worst instance of bare-knuckle politics I’ve ever seen in Minnesota, and the governor is so bold as to engage in it publicly.

“It is political terrorism, in which the hostage is the Minneapolis parks,” Pattock said. “Feels like Mayor Daley’s Chicago in the 1970s.”