Rondo plaintiffs get partial victory in light rail ruling

Old Rondo Avenue
A sign for "Old Rondo Ave.: 1865-1966" stands atop other street signs overlooking Interstate 94, left, and a frontage road in St. Paul, Minn., where homes, stores and other businesses once stood before the area was cleared in the 1950's to make way for the new interstate highway connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Jim Mone/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A federal judge in St. Paul ruled Thursday that Central Corridor light-rail planners failed to analyze how construction of the 11-mile transit line would affect businesses in the corridor.

Judge Donovan Frank ordered light-rail planners to conduct further study of the Central Corridor transit line.

Frank sided with African-American businesses and residents who sued over the project a year ago. He ruled that the environmental study for the line linking St. Paul to Minneapolis was "deficient" because it failed to consider how its construction would affect nearby businesses.

But the judge refused to block the roughly $1 billion project, saying it was in the public's best interest that it stay on schedule.

The St. Paul NAACP and other community groups have long argued that light-rail planners with the Metropolitan Council were ignoring the concerns of businesses and residents along the line. The eastern end of University Avenue in St. Paul is home to Asian and African-American neighborhoods that make it one of the most racially diverse areas in the region.

But the main beneficiaries of the court ruling are the businesses along University Avenue that have opposed LRT construction.

By ordering the Met Council to provide more analysis on the project's effect on businesses, Judge Frank seemed to validate concerns from St. Paul business owners such as Jim Segal, who owns the Ax-Man Surplus Store and is a board member of the University Avenue Business Association.

"Now you have a federal judge that's acknowledged that the environmental impact statement is deficient, and that's what the businesses have been claiming all along," said Segal. "You have to be living in a cave not to think there's going to be some harm during construction."

But Segal wasn't even a party to the lawsuit. Members of the Rondo neighborhood coalition who did file the suit wanted light-rail planners to more fully explore how the project might displace longtime residents through gentrification.

About 50 years ago, the construction of Interstate 94 tore apart the largely African-American Rondo neighborhood and gutted their main business district. Many believe the black community in St. Paul never recovered.

In the court order, Judge Frank wrote that he expects the Met Council will work to resolve the community's other concerns, including fears of gentrification.

That's good news, says attorney Tom DeVincke, who represents the NAACP chapter and other groups in the Rondo neighborhood.

"We're optimistic that going forward the relationship will get better, and that we'll be able to work more constructively with the Met Council, and get more of a fair hearing with the Met Council than we have up to this point," said DeVincke.

But the court order fell short of what DeVincke and his clients were hoping for. The judge dismissed three of their four claims, which argued that the project's environmental impact statement violated the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

"What would have been the ideal result for my clients would have been an injunction stopping the project, until the Met Council and the FTA fully comply with their NEPA requirements. We didn't get that," he said.

DeVincke said it was too early to say whether his group would appeal the decision. Judge Frank said he believed that transit planners took a hard look at the neighborhood concerns, and noted that the city of St. Paul is working on development plans to help maintain the area's character and diversity.

The Met Council argued that suggesting that businesses would lose money during construction was speculative. But Frank didn't buy that, and said he believed nearby businesses would likely see a dip in revenues. Construction on the eastern end of the University Avenue is scheduled to begin next year.

Frank also took issue with the conclusion of light-rail planners that there were no disproportionate effects on minority and low-income populations.

"While perhaps true in a technical sense," Frank wrote, "the Court understands how such phrasing might seem insensitive considering the history of I-94 and the fact that the (Central Corridor) will run directly through neighborhoods with predominantely low-income and/or minority populations."

Met Council Chairwoman Sue Haigh released a statement saying she was pleased with the judge's decision, and that the council will work closely with the community as it moves the project forward. A Met Council spokesman declined to further comment.

Many project partners believe Central Corridor is on track for completion in 2014, even though a final funding agreement with the federal government has yet to be signed.

Supporters believe that the project, once completed, will benefit communities along the line by helping people without cars get to work and creating jobs in the corridor. Judge Frank agreed, saying the advantages of moving the project along outweigh any harm to the community.

Peter Rogoff, the head of the Federal Transit Administration, issued a statement saying he is still fully behind the project and it will complete the additional environmental work ordered by the judge.

"The FTA is moving forward with our long-anticipated project to connect the Twin Cities, create jobs, and boost the economy of the region," said Administrator Peter Rogoff.

Now that the Rondo lawsuit has been resolved, the FTA will likely turn its attention to two civil-rights complaints filed over the Central Corridor project. Several of the same Rondo plaintiffs, along with an Asian business group, argue that light-rail planners failed to adequately consider the project's effects on the avenue's communities of color, as required by federal law.

Minnesota Public Radio has also sued the Met Council over the light rail project, contending that vibrations and noise from the trains running outside its St. Paul headquarters will adversely affect its broadcast operations. That lawsuit is still pending.

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