The Federal Transit Administration has ordered the Metropolitan Council to conduct a full analysis of the impacts of Southwest Light Rail Transit on Minneapolis park land — a requirement that will delay a key environmental review of the project by several months.
Due to the new requirement, a long-anticipated supplemental draft environmental impact statement that was to have been released by the end of February now won’t be available for public review and comment until late spring. That in turn will not only delay the final decision on the environmental impacts of the $1.68 billion project, but also the final engineering work and the start of construction for the 16-mile extension of Metro Transit’s Green Line.
The new order from federal officials is a direct result of a letter sent last month by the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board. The letter notified the FTA that the Park Board believes that the Southwest LRT project has the potential to harm a strip of park land that runs between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. Such a disruption could constitute a “taking” of parkland for a federally funded transportation project, something prohibited by a federal rule known as Section 4(f).
Previous environmental impact statements by the Met Council acknowledged there would be so-called 4(f) impacts on the park land due to the alignment. But those studies also determined that the impacts would be minor — de minimis in regulatory speak — and could be mitigated, the council staff said.
After receiving the letter, FTA officials began taking part in meetings between Met Council staff and park board staff, deciding to order the more-formal 4(f) review.
The change in direction from the FTA came the same week the project received two pieces of good news from the federal government. First, the project was included in President Obama’s transportation budget — one of just seven so-called new starts projects in the nation. In addition, the project’s overall rating was upgraded by the FTA from medium to medium-high.
The Park Board has long wanted a more-extensive study on the impacts of a bridge over the Kenilworth Channel, which connects Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. When the Met Council refused, the board hired consultants to do some of the work on its own. The new orders from FTA for a full section 4(f) analysis put that work back on the Met Council staff. Wednesday, several park board members said they were frustrated that it took their letter to heighten awareness of the 4(f) issues with the Met Council and its staff.
Tunnel would add up to $145 million in costs
Word of the FTA’s new orders came at a Wednesday night meeting of the Park Board, during a briefing on the project by senior Met Council staff, including Chair Adam Duininck. And it came after the Park Board’s own staff said the result of an engineering study commissioned by the board showed that its preferred option for the route’s crossing of the Kenilworth Channel — a tunnel rather than a bridge — would be “feasible” and likely “prudent,” though expensive.
Those two words are key to any discussion of a possible tunnel. Under federal 4(f) rules, projects that use park land cannot be approved if there are alternative routes that are both feasible and prudent. The Park Board needs to prove that tunneling is both.
Yet Met Council staff told the park board Wednesday night that if the tunnel option was accepted, the project would be delayed by a year or more and the price tag would rise between $105-$145 million. The delays would come from engineering work on the tunnel options, additional environmental review, a new municipal consent process for the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County and the longer construction schedule for a tunnel versus a bridge.
Inflation alone would add about $50 million to the cost, or about $1 million a week, said Met Council light rail director Mark Fuhrmann.
The delays would also cause the project to miss the 2016 construction season, Fuhrmann told the board. And rather than be open for riders in late 2019, the extension would be open in late 2020 or early 2021, Fuhrmann said.
“Our major concerns are timeline and budget,” Duininck said of the tunnel options. “We are short of time and short of regional resources.”
On Wednesday, Park Board staff said they believed a tunnel option is technically feasible and prudent in terms of causing less visual and noise impact. A tunnel would also negate the need for an additional bridge over the channel to carry two-way light rail trains.
But the staff did not have a conclusion when it came to another federal stipulation, that the tunnel option not cause “additional construction, maintenance, or operational costs of extraordinary magnitude.” The park department’s own cost analyses for a tunnel vs. bridges are similar to the Met Council’s, though it did not factor in estimates of inflationary increases.
The federal officials will ultimately review the Section 4(f) analysis and decide what changes to the project are needed. That review also will determine whether adding between $100 million and $145 million to a $1.68 billion project is “extraordinary.”
The Met Council and the park board staff have agreed to meet weekly on the Section 4(f) issues. Duininck pledged to work closer with the Park Board and staff and Board President Liz Wielinski said working with Duininck the last month has been “a breath of fresh air.”