The Southwest light rail project cleared a key hurdle Wednesday when a Minneapolis City Council panel voted for the project despite continuing worries over the route and its potential effects on the city.
Council members on the Transportation & Public Works Committee agreed 4-2 to support the project, marking a turning point for Minneapolis. Five months ago, the city appeared to be on a collision course with the Metropolitan Council over the project. Mediation helped the two sides reach a compromise expected to come before the full city council on Friday.
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The deal appears to have significant support among council members — but that doesn't mean they all love it.
"We are building a regional transit system that serves suburban commuters over urban neighborhoods. That is just a fact," said Council Member Lisa Bender, who wanted the trains to travel through Uptown, the densely populated part of the city she represents.
Instead, most of the Minneapolis stations would be built on the edge of north Minneapolis, a path she argued that will most benefit suburbanites in Hopkins, St. Louis Park, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie.
The compromise is better than having no regional transit system, but it's vital that "we build the local transit connections that serve urban neighborhoods that this transit system is passing by," she said.
A coalition representing minority residents in Minneapolis has been pushing for improved bus service to better connect the city's North Side to the line, part of a larger package of demands aimed at making sure the light rail project benefits minority residents. It also asked the city attorney's office to keep tabs on the project's potential environmental effects.
The Met Council, which is in charge of transit in the Twin Cities, and the Federal Transit Administration are studying the impact of burying the trains in a shallow tunnel as they pass between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.
Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents nearby residents who've fought against the plan to run the light rail trains alongside an existing freight rail line and a popular bike trail, predicted the study will find problems with the tunnel plan, and the city will face political pressure to let the project go forward anyway.
"Suburban mayors, suburban city councils, suburban legislators, the governor's office, Hennepin County, the Met Council, the business community, organized labor and equity activists are going to be saying 'you're too far along now to say no.'" she said.
The group Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis argues Minneapolis shouldn't even vote on the project until a draft of the environmental study is complete. While no lawsuit has been filed yet, the city attorney's office says it expects that issue to be decided by a court.
Despite misgivings over the project, Minneapolis leaders agree on one point: They want the land under nearby freight tracks to stay publicly owned. That provides the city some protection against the potential for more freight trains or more dangerous cargo passing through the park-like area between the lakes.
Goodman plans to vote no on the overall project, but said she's happy the city got a written promise from the Hennepin County Railroad Authority never to sell the land to private owner.
"It's not a guarantee but it is a step in the right direction," Goodman said.