A project that seems to take one step backward for every two steps forward took two steps forward this week.
On a 10-3 vote, the Minneapolis City Council gave municipal consent to a revised design and budget for Southwest light rail, which will extend the Green Line from Target Field to Eden Prairie. The city was the final local government to give its consent for the project that, if built, will be the state’s most expensive public works project.
The Friday vote followed consent given earlier this week by Hennepin County, and earlier this month by St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. The Metropolitan Council is building the 14.5 mile, $1.774 billion project.
Also this week, the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board gave approval to design concepts for bridges over the Kenilworth Channel. The three bridges — one for freight, one for light rail and one for bikes and pedestrians — have also been approved by the state Historic Preservation Office because they impact historic resources.
Only the freight rail bridge would have piers in the water, something the park board wanted kept to a minimum. The light rail bridge will also have low sidewalls to contain noise generated by LRT vehicle wheels.
The approval is significant because it furthers an agreement made between the park board and Met Council in February that ended threats of litigation over the project. The park board had favored a tunnel beneath the channel to minimize the ill effects on the popular connection between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. When the tunnel became too expensive and time consuming, the park board dropped its objections in return for a significant role in bridge designs and other impacts on the parkway.
The board wanted separate bridges that minimized the visual impact and lessened shading on the channel beneath.
The municipal consent process was a repeat of one conducted last summer. After the Met Council reduced the scope of the project and cut the budget by $250 million, council attorneys recommended that the changes were significant enough to trigger a second request for permission. All of the governments along the route had to approve before the project could move ahead.
The Met Council must now complete environmental work for a final environmental impact statement. At the same time, it is advancing the engineering work in order to seek final funding agreements from the Federal Transit Administration by the end of 2016. It must also received the final piece of the funding package — about $138 million — from the state Legislature during next year’s session.
The 10-3 vote of the Minneapolis council was the same as in August, 2014 with the same members voting no — Lisa Goodman, Cam Gordon and Barbara Johnson. Goodman said she didn’t expect to change the minds of the majority but wanted her warnings about the project on the record again.
Goodman, whose ward contains the most-controversial segments of the extension, said she opposes running light rail and freight rail on the same corridor and voiced concerns that increased oil and ethanol trains present dangers not fully considered by the Met Council. She also worried that construction of the tunnel would damage nearby buildings and predicted the tunnel would ultimately not be completed.
“The railroads have tremendous control over what happens in our city,” Goodman said. “What they don’t control is the idea of building a tunnel and putting people and light rail trains underground while running above them and hoping … there won’t be an accident is some sort of wishful thinking.”
The council also approved a resolution by Council Member Kevin Reich that called on the railroad that uses the freight corridor to disclose emergency response and spill prevention plans, meet with community groups to hear their concerns and consider rerouting oil trains during light rail construction. It also asked the Met Council to prepare a report on rail safety and emergency response.