Park Board gets feds to order more extensive environmental review of Southwest LRT

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck, the council's light rail program director Mark Fuhrmann and Minneapolis Park Board Superintendent Jayne Miller talk Wednesday after a board discussion on Southwest LRT.

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.” 

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 02/05/2015 - 10:17 am.

    It’s not too late

    If this thing goes off the rails anymore than it already has (and shame on MPRB… seriously, my neighborhood park could really use that $500k more than a politically-motivated study)… Gov. Dayton should really push the FTA and others to figure out a graceful and timely way to switch to a 3C alignment.

    Everyone admits that the numbers used to justify Kenilworth were highly flawed (just look at the 21st St ridership forecasts vs the Uptown TS forecasts) but we’re too far down this track to make meaningful change.

    But if we’re going to spend nine figures on tunnels, and we’re going to have delay after delay for useless political fighting, we might as well make lemonade out of it. I hope there’s some backchanneling happening to figure out how we can change our transit investments in a way that actually serves the city.

    3C! 3C! 3C!

  2. Submitted by jody rooney on 02/05/2015 - 10:25 am.

    Sounds like it’s time to go to Congress

    and have them declare that there is no taking or that it is acceptable.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/05/2015 - 10:36 am.

    One bright day in the middle of the night,
    Two dead boys got up to fight.
    Back to back they faced each other,
    drew their swords and shot each other.
    A deaf policeman heard the noise
    and ran to save the two dead boys.
    And if you don’t believe it’s true,
    go ask the blind man, he saw it too.

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 02/05/2015 - 10:51 am.

    Everyone here loves to blame the Park Board, but…

    …isn’t the arrogance of the Met Council to this point at least partially responsible ??

    If the Met Council had previously brought a “breath of fresh air” to these considerations, maybe we wouldn’t have the situation we are in now.

    It’s unfortunate the Park Board had to bring in the FTA in order to be taken seriously. I hope the Met Council takes notice that the Park Board can’t be merely brushed aside, as they do have serious legal responsibilities and powers that can’t be ignored.

    Regardless of any personal opinions we may have about this project, we should expect and demand that these two bodies are going to work together in good faith on issues which affect us all.

    • Submitted by Steve Carlson on 02/05/2015 - 11:22 am.

      You’re joking, right?

      The Park Board has been nothing but obstructionist in this entire process. Nobody took them seriously because it had already been determined their concerns were minimal at best.

      The Park Board has cost Minnesotans millions of dollars through their haphazard and farcical drive to save a strip of neglected land.

      Vote the bums out.

      • Submitted by jody rooney on 02/05/2015 - 02:28 pm.

        I haven’t liked them since they

        ruined the Fort Snelling Area for soft ball. This is obstructionist and irresponsible on the part of the park board.

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 02/05/2015 - 11:27 pm.

    The Park Board was elected ….

    to care for the parks. They are doing what they were elected to do. Now if the other elected officials would follow through for what they were elceted and or appointed to accomplish perhaps this fiasco would have been avoided.

  6. Submitted by Rodgers Adams on 02/06/2015 - 08:35 am.

    Park Board role

    I wonder how many of the commentators know just what exchanges between the Park Board and the SWLRT staff have or have not taken place. The SWLRT staff seems to suggest there has been much more discussion than some critics suggest. The Park Board should be an advocate for park land, but they should also be an advocate for wise use of public dollars, and aware that their interests are not the only public interests at play. I have seen Park Board justifications for spending $500,000 on studies as a quest for necessary information, but no explanation of the ultimate goal for spending the money. The Park Board may have a duty to consider feasible and prudent ideas, but there is no requirement that they move beyond previous studies and political realities in doing so. The $500,000 makes sense only if the Park Board can point to a likely specific benefit from that optional investment. If the desired outcome is a tunnel under the Kenilworth channel, they need to make a convincing argument that the extra money to pay for the tunnel is available. So far, there is no indication that the key financial players are willing to add millions to the already controversial cost of SWLRT. So the suggestion must be that the Park Board can come up with the additional money, since they seem to have had $500,000 lying around.

  7. Submitted by Steven Prince on 02/06/2015 - 09:59 am.

    Time to Change the Route

    The article says: “Under federal 4(f) rules, projects that use park land cannot be approved if there are alternative routes that are both feasible and prudent.”

    So the question is no longer whether to bridge or tunnel, but whether abandoning the Kenilworth Alignment for the Greenway-Nicollet alignment is “feasible and prudent.”

    That’s a no-brainer.

    Whatever you may think of the Park Board’s motives, they have exposed what every honest commentator always understood: SWLR was poorly planned and only being pushed forward to prevent delay. Since we are now going to get the delay anyway, lets do this right. As Matt Steele points out, an honest comparison of the Greenway-Nicollet alignment to Kenilworth is not going to favor the Kenilworth route.

    • Submitted by Rodgers Adams on 02/06/2015 - 02:39 pm.

      Alternate routes

      Could you elaborate on your claim that alternate routes were not studied? At various times different Greenway routes were floated and discussed, including going north on Hennepin, Lyndale, and Park/Portland, in addition to Nicollet. And variations of the Nicollet route were also considered (surface on Nicollet, alleys on each side of Nicollet, Blaisdell/1st Ave.) before a tunnel under Nicollet was determined to be the best option. As to delays, the current quoted estimate is a three-month delay for additional Kenilworth tunnel study. What is your estimate of the delay to develop plans in similar detail of the Nicollet alternative? What is your assumption about the strength of political opposition from the Midtown Greenway Coalition, property owners along Nicollet (and their political representatives), Minneapolis advocates of street cars on Nicollet between south Minneapolis and northeast Minneapolis, the FTA with regard to having no connection between all the planned light rail lines, the officials of southwest suburbs who support the current routing. The idea of a light rail line serving Uptown and LynLake is attractive to me, but having watched the evolution of the current plan over the last ten years, I now realize that there is no perfect way to route a light rail line through a developed city, and the Kenilworth route is a solution based on weighing all the factors, not the result of hasty or poor planning. If blame is to be assigned, it’s not the planners, but the city and county officials who didn’t press for prompt relocation of the freight traffic bacvk when they had leverage

  8. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 02/09/2015 - 03:43 pm.

    Thinking metropolitan …

    This line is very important to the W and SW suburbs, and to downtown, but not to west Minneapolis neighborhoods. There are existing rail rights of way that go west and north of Cedar Lake. Why not send the line in that direction rather than trying to fit one more big item in the Kenilworth bottleneck?

    • Submitted by Rodgers Adams on 02/10/2015 - 12:21 pm.

      Alternate routes

      But where does that alternate route go south? What existing right-of-way is not being used by a railroad? Where is the right-of-way wide enough to accommodate the existing freight trains plus two light rail tracks? The Kenilworth route was a frent-runner because the county already had control of land for a transit route. The same was true in Minnetonka and Eden Prairie, but an alternate route was found through less-dense suburban development without having to buy and tear down houses. And the rerouting was supported — even advocated — by government officials and business in the area. No one has been able to identify a similar route through Hopkins and St. Louis Park.

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