In the end, it came down to price.
Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board staff had already concluded that tunneling under the Kenilworth Channel was a feasible alternative to new rail bridges planned as part of the Southwest light rail alignment. But when it agreed with Metropolitan Council staff last week that doing so would add around $100 million to the already pricey project, its legal position challenging the bridges fell apart.
So at a Wednesday night meeting, and after another round of testimony from opponents of the alignment and some emotional commentary from several commissioners, the Park Board voted 6-3 to give up its attempt to force through a tunnel. Voting yes were Board President Liz Wielinski and commissioners Brad Bourn, John Erwin, Steffanie Musich, Jon Olson and Scott Vreeland. Voting no were commissioners Meg Forney, Anita Tabb and Annie Young.
It wasn’t just the price difference between a tunnel and the bridges. Changing the alignment would delay the project by up to a year, with delays costing nearly $1 million a week.
“While a tunnel option has been determined to be feasible and the least impactful channel crossing alternative, the board may consider a tunnel to be not prudent because it results in costs of extraordinary magnitude,” said Park Superintendent Jayne Miller during a presentation to the board, “and the time required for additional review under Municipal Consent results in additional costs of extraordinary magnitude and threaten the viability of the SWLRT project.”
The ‘prudent and feasible’ standard
“Prudent and feasible” are magic words under a federal transportation law that bans the use of federal money on projects that take over or damage parkland or historic sites. Only if there are no “prudent and feasible” alternatives can road or rail projects take parkland, and only then if the damage is minor. If the owner of the parkland doesn’t agree to the project, it can block it, unless the Federal Transit Administration doesn’t think the proposed alternative — a tunnel instead of a bridge, for instance — is both feasible and prudent.
Met Council staff has asserted that it studied the tunnel option and determined it wasn’t the best choice for the channel, which connects Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. Yet opponents of the route for the $1.6 billion project, which will extend the Green Line from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, argue that a tunnel under Kenilworth Channel was abandoned as part of a political deal to win municipal consent from a reluctant Minneapolis City Council.
Either way, failing the prudent test could have caused the FTA to side with the Met Council. The cost estimates “have put you and us as an organization in a very, very difficult position,” Miller said. So the Park Board leadership made the best deal it could with the Met Council. The agreement approved Wednesday gives the Park Board a formal role in decisionmaking on Southwest LRT and future transit projects like the Bottineau Blue Line extension. That is not the case under state law, which gives cities and counties a veto, but not park districts.
Met Council to pay some engineering costs
In addition, the Met Council will reimburse the Park Board for half the cost of the engineering work done already to demonstrate the feasibility and prudence of tunnels. So far that work will cost the board about $298,000. The rationale for the Met Council paying for some of the engineering work is it will use it in a more extensive examination of parks impacts, as required in January by the FTA. That means engineering work initially commissioned to show that the tunnel was a prudent alternative will now be used by the Met Council to demonstrate that it isn’t prudent after all.
The Met Council will also cover staff work devoted since October on the bridge/tunnel issue: $21,500. The board will also be reimbursed for future staff time needed to implement the agreement, up to $50,000 a year for five years.
Tabb was unhappy with the deal and the process. She agreed with a comment during public testimony that the board was acting under duress due to threats by Gov. Mark Dayton to withhold badly needed operating funds for city parks. “This feels slimy,” she said.
But Wielinski said that while it wasn’t a deal that satisfies all parties, it is enough. “Coming to a compromise is part of how the sausage making in government happens,” Wielinski said. “While this doesn’t make us 100 percent happy, I think we’ve got a good agreement and I know we’re going to have a better relationship going forward with Bottineau.”
Southwest LRT is a $1.6 billion project that will extend the Green Line train from Target Field Station to Eden Prairie.