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.