Golden Valley approves fourth light-rail route

Concerned about light rail line
Deb Schumacher near the trail entrance to Mary Hills Park Monday, Dec. 17, 2012 outside her Golden Valley home. She is concerned that the proposed Bottineau light rail project will destroy the park wetlands and woodlands.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Early plans for what could be the Twin Cities' fourth light-rail transit spoke are moving ahead, with the blessing of the city of Golden Valley. The city council in the first-ring suburb on Tuesday evening gave its initial approval to the proposed Bottineau route.

Until now, Golden Valley had been the sole dissenter out of the five communities along the path connecting Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park. The opposition has been fueled in part by neighbors who say the trains would spoil the very essence of their community.

Even the name, "Golden Valley," sounds bucolic. And you begin to believe it when you step into the snow-covered woods across the street from Debra Schumacher's house.

"The trees, with the white on it -- it looks like a fairy tale. This place is like being up north, in the Cities," said Schumacher. "You drive for 10 minutes, and you're here. You have the animals, the nature, the trees, the smell of the cleanness of the space."

This meandering patch of parkland, where the occasional freight train rumbles by, is where Hennepin County wants to route light-rail trains as frequently as every seven minutes. Schumacher fears the disruptions would chase out the deer, fox, and hawks that also call the area home.

"It would completely destroy the neighborhood. I was outside doing tai chi and my husband came running out, saying, 'Look up! Look up!' There was an eagle circling over my head," she recalled. "Now, would an eagle be hunting over here if the wildlife disappeared? I don't think so."

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Once you disturb this natural habitat, it's gone forever, Schumacher said.

Golden Valley opponents of the route note that light-rail planners have an alternative. Another alignment once strongly considered by the county would send trains running through the heart of north Minneapolis. A $1 billion light-rail system could also pump life into neglected areas and serve low-income residents.

But transit planners say that route, which would send trains down Penn Avenue, would also require the removal of about 100 homes.

Still, Debra Schumacher, who used to live on the north side, thinks that would be a better option.

"Yes, houses would be displaced, but there are more houses," Schumacher said. "But there isn't more parkland to be taken up."

Map shows the proposed Bottineau Line. Story continues below the map.

But Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat said "it's a little bit arrogant" for some critics in Golden Valley to presume the line belongs on Penn Avenue.

"For some people, a small number, it's just a not-in-my-backyard situation," Opat said.

Opat also disagreed with the way some residents have characterized the land along the route.

"I've actually ridden the corridor, and it's not as beautiful and pristine as some might make it out to be," said Opat. "The time I went through it, there was a mattress along the corridor. It's a freight rail corridor now. ...What people are failing to see is some of the improvements that could be made in terms of plantings, landscaping, buffering, and things that are not there now."

Opat noted that local officials, including those representing north Minneapolis, considered various proposals for years before recommending the current alignment through Golden Valley.

One of those officials is Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels, who backed the Golden Valley alignment after hearing from his constituents worried about the thought of putting up what they saw as another barrier in the community.

But Samuels personally preferred the Penn Avenue option because of the potential for economic development.

"It was the case of, 'Which poison are you going to take? Are you going to be run over, or passed by?'"

The preferred route is four minutes faster than the Penn Avenue one. That's a key metric for light-rail planners because shorter travel times might sway commuters, such as employees at the Target campus in Brooklyn Park, to hop on the train.

Planners estimate that about 27,000 passengers would ride the Bottineau route by 2030, on either the Penn Avenue or Golden Valley alignment.

Light-rail planners next summer hope to submit an application promoting one preferred alignment to the federal government, which would be expected to bear half of the project's costs.

In Golden Valley, the measure passed on a 3-2 vote of the City Council Tuesday night, in spite of threats from some residents to vote them out of office. Council Member Joanie Clausen changed her position after opposing the authorization in an earlier vote taken last summer.

Another supporter is Mayor Shep Harris, who said it's his job to look at the big picture.

"What's going to benefit not only Golden Valley, but what's going to benefit the metropolitan area? What's going to benefit the state of Minnesota? My hope is this is a start," said Harris.

If the Golden Valley City Council had failed to support the route, light rail planners say, it would have put the project on hold indefinitely.