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Minneapolis Park Board relents in battle with Met Council; drops objection to Kenilworth Channel bridges

The park board will accept the Met Council’s preference for new bridges
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Council
The park board will accept the Met Council’s preference for new bridges over the Kenilworth Channel.

Officials from the Metropolitan Council and the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, who had been battling for months over the routing of Southwest Light Rail, abruptly changed their rhetoric Friday, announcing a deal that will end the park board’s opposition to the $1.68 billion transit project.

The park board’s approval of the agreement — expected at its meeting Wednesday —will put and end to its pursuit of a shallow tunnel option to traverse the Kenilworth Channel, which connects Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. Instead, the park board will accept the Met Council’s preference for new bridges over the channel.

In return, the Met Council has agreed to cover half the park board’s costs for commissioning engineering studies related to the tunnel option. That could be worth up to $250,000 to the board.

Turns out the tunnel was feasible but not prudent, which was key to the park board’s ability to affect any changes when it came to the project. While it is possible to build a tunnel under the Kenilworth Channel, the added cost (up to $145 million) and time (it would have added more than a year to the project's timeline) was considered excessive.

The Met Council has agreed to involve parks staff in the design of the new bridges and mitigation measures in order to soften the impact on the park land, one of the board’s chief concerns. The council will also include the park board earlier in planning for future light rail projects, especially the Bottineau Line to Brooklyn Park.

“Thanks to the diligent work of the Park Board and project engineers, we now have a path forward for this critically important transit investment, which is a vital link in the 21st century transit system we will build here in the greater Twin Cities metro,” said Council Chair Adam Duininck in a press release. “The Council is pleased to have the Park Board’s support for bridging the channel.”

Park Board President Liz Wielinski also released a statement: “We have received a lot of new information this month from our consultants and the Metropolitan Council,” she said. “The Park Board is very optimistic about the new, more collaborative efforts for the ongoing work on the Southwest Light Rail, the Bottineau Line and any future mass transit that may impact parkland in the metro area. Our thanks go to Chair Duininck for his leadership in moving this forward.” 

Lawyers for the park board — both those on staff and from the firm hired to look into the agency's legal rights on the project — argued that the board was on sound legal footing in challenging the project. Federal transportation law prohibits those projects funded with federal money from adversely impacting park land unless there is no “prudent and feasible” alternative. While an earlier draft environmental impact statement said park impacts were minor, the Federal Transit Administration has ordered the Met Council to do a more complete analysis. That additional study has already delayed one part of the Southwest LRT planning process, the release of a supplemental draft EIS, from February to late spring. 

By signing the memorandum of understanding with the Met Council, the park board is conceding that the added expense of the tunnel as well as the added time could lead the FTA to conclude that the tunnel option isn’t prudent.

Though the park board’s actions led the FTA to call for further study, the board’s anticipated endorsement of the bridge options won’t negate the need for that study. That is how the Met Council can justify covering half the costs of the engineering studies it had opposed earlier; it will use the results of that engineering analysis in its own park impact study. Ironically, the park board engineering study commissioned to show that a tunnel was a “feasible and prudent” alternative to new bridges will now be used to show that it is not.

While the park board may have had the law on its side, it ultimately did not have politics on its side. Political pressure was being brought to bear on the board by supporters of the 16-mile extension of the Green Line. That was highlighted a month ago, when Gov. Mark Dayton proposed cutting $3.77 million in state funding to the agency.

“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 at the time.

Mary Pattock, spokesperson for alignment opponents the Lakes and Parks Alliance, said she was stunned at the secrecy of the agreement between the Met Council and the park board. "People in the community are extremely concerned about potential damage to the Chain of Lakes environment and aesthetics, yet the basis of the agreement is kept secret. So the public is left in the dark about whether the agreement is based on environmental considerations or the Park Board is just caving to more political threats."

The alliance has its own legal challenge to the project that was heard for the first time Wednesday in U.S. District Court. The suit alleges that local government approval of the alignment should have waited until a final draft environmental impact statement was made public.

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Comments (19)

Great article

Thank you Peter for this informed analysis of the issues and politics of the SW LRT.

Translation

The park board realized that they were going to lose and decided to save face.

The money they spent on this - even if half now comes from the Met Counsel - is public money that was flushed down the toilet. Lets hope Minneapolis voters remember this and replace the park board next time around.

yup

What a waste. Time for new leadership.

I would hope ...

that the voters replace thre decisonmakers that brought this entirely riduculious route. Down the Greenway was the best choice ignored.

Hope?

The Greenway route was not ignored. Planners and designers considered and studied multiple options including the Greeway and rejected them for a number of good reasons. They even considered running it down 394. I'm not going to recount those reasons again here, if anyone wants to know you can do what I did, go to one of the many open-house/planning/informational events and ask. The project designers and engineers are more than happy to explain why they chose the Kenilworth route over the Greenway route.

Just because some people don't like this route, doesn't mean it's a bad route, or an ill-considered route. In fact, it's a perfectly good route for a number of good reasons. And, just because this LRT line runs out to the suburbs doesn't make it's a waste of resources. We're building a metro transit system, no another inner-city transit system.

The same planners who used

The same planners who used faulty projection models that showed equal ridership at a station in the middle of the woods as at hennepin and lake? The same planners who never bothered to investigate whether or not the freight rail could actually be relocated?

Sorry if I don't have too much faith in the decision-making process for this line anymore.

This route choice was made with false assumptions, invalid numbers and outdated federal cost effectiveness calculations. Never once when it was still early enough in the process to reexamine any of these mistakes did anyone even consider taking another look at it as the situation dramatically shifted. They were so committed to their own faulty decision-making process and not looking foolish that they're going to end up wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on tunneling through the woods so they don't have to admit they made a mistake. Characterizing anyone who has a problem with this kind of faulty logic as 'just not liking the route' is insulting.

The line once it leaves Minneapolis is fine for another suburban commuter route that should be served by commuter rail and not light rail, but the routing inside the city is a huge mistake and allocating huge sums of money for suburban commuters that could be used on more effective transit options for people who already use it is yet another giveaway to the suburbs which have been heavily subsidized with highways for decades.

Route

Ridership was not and is not the sole consideration when evaluating alignments. In fact I think the ridership argument is the least important in the SWLRT case. Please take Paul's advice and talk to staff. They are quite eager to answer questions.

Whatever, let's move on but...

Let's be clear about a few things, the project has been unnecessarily delayed and those delays have raised the cost and jeopardized funding. No ever claimed that the PB had no legal right to make this challenge, just that it was extremely poor judgement and financially irresponsible to do so. Finally, the PB spent half a million on an additional study that simply confirmed what two (or was it three?) previous studies had already recommended. No one ever said that it is impossible to build either shallow or deep tunnels under the channel, just that the cost of doing so is not warranted, and the benefits of tunnels do not justify the additional expense and possible disruption to the water features. It's safer, easier, and less expensive to use bridges (which have been used there for 100 years) than it is to tunnel. But remember, we already knew all of this so let's hope some people around here have learned some lessons.

Bridges

Thank God that this issue is resolved and the region can move on with the next step in a modern light rail transit system. One thing that people seem to forget is that this will reduce local traffic congestion and parking challenges, which will continue to increase as residential housing develops downtown and the lakes continu to be prized amenities that more than mmore people want ot use. The positive impact of this goes well beyond he neighbor's backyard.

What the law requires

The phrasing "While the park board may have had the law on its side. . ." is a bit misleading. It is true that someone had to determine whether or not there was a "feasible and prudent" alternative to the bridge over the channel. However, the law says that it is the head of the federal agency who is required to make that determination. It does not say that the Park Board is required to voice an opinion on the matter (although it is free to do so), or what basis it has to have in order to voice that opinion.

Previous studies had already shown that a deep tunnel was feasible. And the recent history of the Green Line Extension shows that the project was up against the limit in terms of cost and time. Park commissioners have never shown that they had any reasonable expectation that a longer tunnel might cost no more than a short bridge over a narrow channel, or that the process of changing plans and building a tunnel would not delay the project. In other words, there was no likely way that the $500,000 investment would lead to no bridge. A responsible Park Board would have foreseen what the inevitable outcome would be, and avoided risking so many taxpayer dollars.

On the other hand, perhaps the whole thing was a gambit to give the Board negotiating clout with the feds. Voters will have to decide if a less expensive and more straightforward option was available to get the attention of the feds.

Rodgers Adams

Yeah...

That phrase about the PB having the law "on it's side" caught my attention as well. If one doesn't read it carefully it almost looks the sentence is saying the law endorsed rather than merely allowed this legal action.

All they did was create another hoop to jump through, the project could have done without that.

Requirement vs. option

I'm sensitive to this issue because some Park Board members and their supporters have answered critics by claiming that the action was "required" by federal law, and that claim has made its way into print. The fact is that federal law imposes no requirements on local agencies; it merely provides them with a basis for making a challenge if they choose to do so.

One last hoop...

Now let's see if the court dismisses the other lawsuit, which I think is likely.

Sequencing

The lawsuit is interesting because the issue is sequencing -- which comes first, making a plan or evaluating a plan? The project office for the Green Line extension is not arguing that there is no need for an environmental review, just that planning and evaluation must go hand-in-hand. It is only common sense that you make some preliminary decisions, study the impact, make revisions, study the impact, make further revisions, study the impact, etc. This iterative process led to the selection of a preferred route, then municipal consent, and, ultimately, final engineering design -- all part of a continuing give-and-take between planning and evaluation. Under the logic inherent in of the suit, that decisions can't be made until evaluation is complete, there could have been no decisions about routing and station location until there had been an in-depth environmental study of the impact of all the dozen or so options being considered. That is both impractically expensive and functionally gear-jamming.

Yes...

Your logic prevailed over a decade ago when people trying to stop the Hiawatha Re-route close to Coldwater Spring pointed out that the EIS study area didn't extend any farther south than something like 52nd St. They demanded a supplemental EIS that would study the impact of construction on Coldwater Creek. Those claims got nowhere at the time because your ongoing/design/study logic prevailed. They did get another hydrology study out of the deal, and THAT did save Coldwater Creek (MNDOT had offered to pump city water into the Creek so it would "look" like it was still flowing by the way) but the EIS challenge was a non-starter. The alliance to save the creek, the woods, and sacred oaks had no money, and mostly Pro bono lawyers however... a dramatic difference from the Kenilworth group.

Sequencing

Sorry, but I don't understand the point of your last post. The Southwest Project Office is doing a SDEIS based on revisions to the original plan, to provide for both freight and light rail bridges over the channel. The lawsuit says that the SDEIS should have been finished before the Project Office sought municipal consent for the co-location plan. But the municipal consent process itself involved negotiations over parts of the revised plan. Waiting for the SDEIS would have delayed the municipal consent process, with the potential of needing an extra SDEIS to take into account any changes negotiated during the municipal consent process (such as removing the north leg of the tunnel and restoring plans for the 21st st. station. Waiting on the SDEIS before seeking municipal consent may seem superficially logical, but it is impractical for a complex project involving multiple steps with multiple players. If a completed EIS was required before each decision on routing, the time and cost required would sink any such project. The current plan does provide for an SDEIS, but it will be based on the plan that incorporates the results of several years of planning and negotiations.

Exactly

This was a very similar situation over on the Hiawatha Reroute. Demonstrators filed a lawsuit claiming that an EIS had to be completed south of 52nd street before the project could proceed. The court disagreed following your reasoning. Basically, Environmental Impact Statement's simply are the not the documents or endeavors a lot of people think they are. They're more a part of the engineering process than a gate keeper for the "environment".

More transit lines ignoring the city

It pains me to see the limited funds for public transit continually being shoveled into projects that primarily benefit those who already have transportation choices, namely suburban commuters. Between the SWLRT and the future blue line extension both bypassing the city and running through parkland we're going to end up with very little improvements for mobility within the dense built-up core of the metro. Because of the focus on regional government and appeasing every far-flung exurban district we feel the need to spread the very limited transit money around to places that cannot support transit by the very nature of their built environment while avoiding giving any meaningful improvements to the areas that can.

The only reason the current lines are successful is because they support uses other than 9-5 commuters. Can you really tell me the routes selected for SWLRT and Bottineau will be more than commuter lines? They are very clearly designed to do nothing other than transport people to work and relieve congestion during rush hour on suburban roads. They will not serve people who need to run errands or do shopping. Most of the stations are so far from anything that I'm willing to bet very few riders will arrive by anything other than car. But that's why we're also spending plenty of money that could go to inner-city bus routes that are over capacity on park and rides in the burbs so people can get their subsidized parking all day while they're at work.

The vision for the future of this metro and its transportation system is pathetic and will eventually stunt growth. We're doing very well economically right now but it probably won't last when there's a refusal to invest meaningfully in inner-city transit.

A line or a system?

Comments on the Green Line Extension as merely a connection between suburban workers and downtown Minneapolis suggest that the line is an independent thing. But it is part of a system that connects more than Eden Prairie homes and downtown Minneapolis offices. As the system grows, it becomes a transit option for many others, including sports fans, concert and play goers, shoppers, social visitors, and air travelers. And even if its primary purpose was to ease rush hour congestion, that congestion is not limited to "suburban roads," as drivers on many major Minneapolis and St. Paul arterials can testify. Short-haul "inner city transit" is a worthwhile goal, but it is a compliment to "metro transit," not a substitute for it.