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Pressure on Minneapolis Park Board mounts over Southwest light rail

Gov. Mark Dayton’s recent comments signaled a not-so-subtle shot to those objecting to the route: that they would be the ones blamed for killing the $1.65 billion project if it doesn’t go forward. 

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

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. 

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“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.”

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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. 

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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.