Pressure on Minneapolis Park Board mounts over Southwest light rail

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The Park Board, led by Liz Wielinski, above, hired an engineering consultant to show that extending the shallow tunnel beneath the channel is feasible.

Pressure is being applied from several directions on the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to halt its path toward a legal challenge to the approved route for the Southwest light rail transit project.

It hasn’t worked so far.

Gov. Mark Dayton used a radio interview broadcast Wednesday — but recorded last month — to drop a bit of a bombshell, or perhaps a warning, about the future of the extension known as Southwest LRT. 

Dayton told MPR he would not give the go ahead for the Metropolitan Council to request a federal funding match for the 16-mile extension from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie until there is regional agreement on the route. A request this year, therefore, is unlikely. 

“I’m reluctant to put in money before we have a secure project,” Dayton said. While the headline on the online version of the MPR story said the project was not a “priority” for Dayton, there is nothing in a transcript released by his press office or in his actions to suggest his support has changed. The Met Council, all of whose members were appointed by Dayton, has been moving aggressively toward building the line, presumably with his consent. 

Instead it appears that Dayton intended his statements as a not-so-subtle warning: that those objecting to the route, or its current design, will get the blame if the $1.65 billion project is killed. 

“It’s so bogged down now that I don’t know whether it’s going to be viable or not,” Dayton said based on the transcript. “I think the people who want to clog up the process have in mind to have this fall apart, and they may get their way. 

“I would say that unless the people who want better public transit get behind this project and really insist that the process be speeded up and carried out, we’ll go back to what we have now and add bus lanes and whatever else,” the governor said. “Some people think that’s a better approach anyway, so we may by default fall into that.”  

Regarding the role of mass transit in the region’s system, Dayton said: “We need to decide whether we are really going to make a serious commitment and bring it up to where it needs to be, or are we going to let it continue to be inadequate and then suffer the increased congestion on our roads and highways because people don’t have a choice.” 

Comments hint at frustration with Park Board

The project is controversial, but not because some Minneapolis residents along the route oppose light rail in theory. Rather, it’s because they oppose routing the Southwest LRT project through the Kenilworth Corridor, a path that currently includes a plan to build a shallow tunnel through the part that passes between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake.

Dayton didn’t appear to be speaking to those opponents as much as he was to the elected members of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which has officially opposed the alignment because the tunnel does not extend to the Kenilworth Channel, a 100-year-old canal that connects the two lakes. The wider bridges in the current plan — plus the more-frequent trains running over it — would disrupt “the tranquility of the channel and its quiet enjoyment by park users,” the board has stated. 

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin
County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin

The Park Board in November hired an engineering consultant to show that extending the shallow tunnel beneath the channel is feasible. The board has also hired lawyers to show that it would win a legal challenge under federal law that prohibits federal transportation dollars from being spent on projects that do damage to parks or historic sites. The channel is both parkland and historic, being part of the Grand Rounds Historic District.  

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who also is chair of project partner Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority, said he thinks the governor made his statements out of frustration, “And I don’t blame him.”

But he also thinks Dayton is still very supportive of Southwest LRT.

“He’s just saying, ‘Let’s get on with it,’” McLaughlin said. A longtime supporter of light rail, dating back to the original Blue Line, McLaughlin said the Park Board has a duty to protect the park resource. But he added that he thinks the board members are “worshipping the form of additional studies and environmental reviews instead of looking at what’s already been done and making a judgment as to what’s best for the park.” 

“I think a case can be made that park resources will be better off with this project,” McLaughlin said, noting that there are environmental risks to a tunnel — and impacts of not building the light rail extension. “Killing this project is bad for the environment.”

28 feet of daylight = $100 million

Despite the pressure from Dayton and the Met Council, the board voted 5-2 Wednesday evening to send a letter to the Federal Transit Administration asking the agency for a meeting to discuss the issues. The resolution asserts that the project is in “legal jeopardy,” though an assertion in the letter that the implementation of the project has been “illegal” was removed before the vote. Commissioner and board President Liz Wielinski said those were “fighting words” and weren’t necessary. The letter urges the FTA to act early to ensure the project meets federal law regarding parkland. It also asserts that if the FTA doesn’t act now, the park resource will be “irreparably harmed.” 

“We believe the FTA’s intervention is necessary to avoid delaying this project and obviate the need for proceedings in other venues,” the letter states. The other venues would include the courts.

Met Council Chair Sue Haigh
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Met Council Chair Sue Haigh

But in her strongest public statement on the dispute so far, Met Council Chair Susan Haigh issued her own letter to the board, saying she read the proposed letter to the FTA “with great dismay and frustration.”  

“The letter not only disregards nearly two and a half years of efforts by the Metropolitan Council to consult and collaborate with the Park Board, but it also fails to acknowledge the pause in the preliminary engineering process the Governor instituted a year ago to ensure residents and entities including the Park Board had yet another opportunity to engage,” Haigh wrote.

“If you proceed with sending this letter, the Council is prepared to provide documentation of our extensive efforts to the FTA.” She wrote that the legal challenges would waste hundreds of million of taxpayer dollars. And the tunnel instead of the bridge would provide just 28 feet of additional daylight over the channel “at a stunning cost of roughly $100 million.” 

“Spending nearly $4M per foot of daylight fails a basic test of common sense and neither I, nor the Governor, will support increasing the project budget to accommodate it,” Haigh wrote. 

Commissioner John Erwin objected to suggestions that the board was seeking to delay the project. Instead, he said, the board is seeking the information it needs to make a decision as to how to proceed.  

Tunnel is feasible, but is it cost prohibitive?  

The board also approved an addition to the contract with engineering firm Brierly Associates of $248,000, bringing the total to $494,000. The second phase of engineering is supposed to show whether the longer tunnel is prudent; that is, that it can be built at a cost that isn’t prohibitive. The completed work by Brierly determined that a sub-channel tunnel is feasible, and proposed two possible methods: cut and cover, in which a trench is dug, the tunnel framed and then refilled; and what it termed a “jacked box” method.

The latter would see the tunnel built in an excavated pit to the north or south of the channel. That “box” would then be pushed into a tunnel dug beneath the channel. The channel would not have to be closed and drained, as it would for the cut and cover method. But the jacked box option is also more expensive, and takes longer.  

As currently designed, the Met Council is hoping that half of the project cost will be met by the FTA. The rest would come from the Counties Transportation Improvement Board, the county railroad authority and the state. Of the state and local share, all but $120 million has been committed. But that final amount is state money that must be approved by the 2015 Legislature, and Republicans in House have not been supporters of additional light rail construction. 

There are also some rumblings out of Washington, D.C., that Republicans there who control both houses of Congress may want future light rail projects to carry higher local matches —perhaps 60 percent or higher rather than the 50 percent the Met Council has been counting on for Southwest LRT. 

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by mark wallek on 01/08/2015 - 10:50 am.

    All Hail the Kingdom of Parks.

    The Park Board is going to do whatever it wants to do, or not, because the royal board has it’s royal mandate to look good, pay the commissioners well, cultivate weeds in parks, and keep the palace looking nice. Replacing the heavy immovable concrete trash receptacles in Jordan park means the plastic dumpsters get commandeered for private trash service. Good move there.

  2. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 01/08/2015 - 11:17 am.

    Yay Park Board

    Council Chair Sue Haigh says, “Spending nearly $4M per foot of daylight fails a basic test of common sense..” I guess there are more ways to measure common sense than tunnel length. This whole project fails the common sense test, I think. $4mil per foot? How about the actual cost per rider for this boondoggle? I don’t know what it is offhand but have seen that the government subsidy per ride will meet or exceed the actual fare charged. This project is more about social engineering than fulfilling an actual transportation need with a cost effective solution.

    Maybe the park board is only arguing over one short tunnel but as long as they keep arguing I say YAY!

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/08/2015 - 01:45 pm.

    If I’m not mistaken…

    This brings the Park Boards dollar amount on this close to a million dollars. They set aside half a million for legal costs, and now another half a million for engineering studies. Funny that given the fact they were just complaining about cash crunch.

    And I still don’t see how a tunnel UNDER the channel is less of a threat to the resource than a bridges which have spanned the channel for 100 years and never done any harm?

  4. Submitted by Adam Miller on 01/08/2015 - 01:48 pm.

    Democracy!

    The unelected Met Council feuding with the elected, but lightly voted on, Park Board.

    Meanwhile, all of the actual elected officials are signed off.

  5. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 01/08/2015 - 02:03 pm.

    Nimby

    The project is controversial, but not because some Minneapolis residents along the route oppose light rail in theory.

    That right there IS the definition of Nimbyism.

    $500k in engineering studies. How many recreation centers could have extended hours with that $$$$$?

  6. Submitted by Steven Prince on 01/08/2015 - 02:21 pm.

    Imagine if instead of pushing forward with Kennilworth the Met Counsel has spent the last 3 years figuring out how to move the SWLRT to the Greenway and Nicollet.

    Then we would be spending money on a system that would actually move people in Minneapolis.

    In ten years we will still be arguing about routing and politicians will still be saying it is too late to rethink a dumb plan. Can I hear everyone say “Stillwater Bridge.”

    • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 01/08/2015 - 03:44 pm.

      This. Exactly this. I can’t count how many times I’ve tried to make the point that there are plenty of us who live nowhere near Kenilworth and could care less about rich people’s back yards who think this line is a terrible idea and sets a bad precedent. If we insist on doubling down on poor planning decisions made under different rules with false assumptions instead of using those scarce dollars on the best possible bang for your buck route, what hope is there for transit here in the future? The anti-rail crowd will get their actual boondoggle (the blue and green lines are quite successful so far, despite some claims) to hold up as a reason not to fund transit at all. The people of Minneapolis would languish with the same poor bus service for decades to come, even as the population rises and the neighborhoods urbanize further.

      The real scandal here isn’t the park board putting the brakes on this, it’s that everyone in positions of power in the planning structure are so committed to a broken transit planning system. It’s that this is yet another massive suburban subsidy that is somehow being touted as having benefits for the cities.

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 01/08/2015 - 10:45 pm.

        LRT

        The SWLRT and transit DOES benefit the core cities and not just the burbs. Where do you think the rails go to? Does the train magically stop at the Minneapolis border and then go no further?

      • Submitted by David Greene on 01/09/2015 - 11:02 am.

        Get Informed

        The line does serve Minneapolis.

        But more importantly, look at who is being served in the suburbs. Check the demographics. They are on par with Near North Minneapolis communities.

        “Suburbs” does not equal, “wealthy white people.” Not anymore.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 01/09/2015 - 10:58 am.

      Then Imagine

      Imagine if those pining for an unrealistic Uptown alignment for SWLRT instead channeled their energy into the actual, in-progress, real project to bring rail transit to Uptown, the Midtown LRT, and created the political will to make it happen.

      Then we would be able to serve North and South Minneapolis with rail transit, rather than just the part of South Minneapolis that already has some of the best bus service in the entire metro.

  7. Submitted by David Greene on 01/09/2015 - 11:00 am.

    Let’s Recap

    The Park board is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to do a study that’s already been done, in clear preparation for a lawsuit. Who benefits from this action? Who lives in those neighborhoods?

    The Park Board is reducing rec center hours and deferring maintenance on parks, particularly in disadvantaged communities. SWLRT is a critical opportunity link for Near North Minneapolis and the immigrant and low-income communities all along the line in the suburbs.

    The priorities of the Park Board are clear as day.

  8. Submitted by John Harvey on 01/10/2015 - 01:02 pm.

    Don’t blame The Park Board

    I’m so tired of Susan Haigh and Peter Mclaughlan pointing fingers at others when they just have to look in the mirror. We are in this mess because of the Hennepin County Rail Road Authority and the Met Council. If they had done their jobs years ago we would not have the Railroad going through the Kenilworth. The blame also rests with Saint Louis Park and The owners of the TC& W Railroad who understood when the Rail Line was reactivated through the Kenilworth that it was to be TEMPORARY. The TC&W does not own the tracks nor the land upon which the tracks are situated. They are, in effect, “Renting” the corridor.

    Mayor Rybak did not want the Light Rail to go through the Kenilworth. He wanted it to be a light rail service which would work for Minneapolis as well as the suburbs through which it passes. SWLRT as it is now configured is a Commuter train, not a transit solution. Most of the meetings hosted by the Met Council have been show meetings. Very little listening was done over the years.

    For all those who have never been down the Kenilworth and bloviate about what is happening there I’ll say it again. In order to accommodate the SWLRT through the Kenilworth(a pour choice for a small part of the route) It will be necessary to destroy 3 times as much land to “safely” accommodate the Rail line with it cargo of Grain and Bakken or Tar Sands Oil traveling through neighborhoods and next to 250 LRT trains a day. The bridge over the Lagoon would have to be at least 80′ wide; the width of a freeway overpass. The expensive shallow tunnels proposed by The Met Council are there because there is no room through part of the Kenilworth to accommodate both Rail and Light Rail. By the way on ether side of the Kenilworh, especially in this section, there are apartment houses as well as modest town homes owned and rented by people who are not “Rich cake eaters” as we’ve been lead to believe. Along the rest of the Kenilworth there are modest homes as well as very expensive ones. It is a mix. This misleading PR was and is coming from the Met Council and compounded by the news media, especially Pat Doyle who wrote most of the articles in the Star Tribune.

    With all this nonfeasance going on, when The Park Board tries to do part of what they were elected to do they are pressured and chastised. We should be looking at the people who have caused this problem and have forced the Park board to spend money they would rather not, instead of blaming one of the only entities which is trying to do their job.

    If this project fails it won’t be because of the Park Board doing it’s job but because the movers and shakers didn’t do theirs.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 01/12/2015 - 03:18 pm.

      Kenilworth

      Well, one of those townhome owners bragged about how much money he donated to the anti-LRT effort, so…

      Kenilworth has been a *rail* corridor longer than Isles has been a lake. It has been a designated rail transit corridor for 30 years or more. People had plenty of knowledge about what was going to happen.

      Go back and read articles from the early-/mid-’80s about this line (for example old copies of the Wedge are in the central library). It’s been clear for a very long time this was the best route. I won’t rehash all of the reasons why, I’ve explained it many times.

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