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Mpls. mayor candidates debate light rail at the fair

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Samuels and Eichten
Moderator Gary Eichten and DFL candidate Don Samuels at the MPR News Minneapolis mayoral candidate debate at the Minnesota State Fair, Aug. 26, 2013.
MPR Photo/Eamon Coyne

The Southwest Light Rail Transit line poses a conundrum for the eight leading candidates for mayor of Minneapolis. They generally support the line, but there's a big problem. The route from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie runs right next to existing freight rail tracks and a popular bike trail.

"There is not a space to put the bike trail, the train and the light rail all in one place," mayoral candidate and former City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes said at an MPR News-sponsored debate Monday at the Minnesota State Fair. "The pinch points are too tight. It doesn't work."

The potential solutions to that problem will add hundreds of millions of dollars to the project's price tag, which was originally estimated at about $1.3 billion. The options include burying a section of the light rail line in a tunnel. But that's controversial, too because of concerns the tunnel could damage two nearby lakes.

"No one has been able to tell us so far what that would do to the water in those lakes," candidate and city council member Betsy Hodges said. "I am running to be mayor of the City of Lakes, not the city of swamps."

Most of the candidates at the MPR News debate would like to see the freight trains moved to St. Louis Park. Mark Andrew says that was the plan when he chaired the Hennepin County Board back in the late 1990s. He says the suburb agreed to eventually take that freight traffic in exchange for help cleaning up pollution left behind by a defunct lead smelting operation. Andrew says the freight trains were never supposed to stay in what's called the Kenilworth Corridor of Minneapolis.

"It was in Mark Andrew's county commissioner district, so I had to deal with that and we dealt with it successfully," Andrew said.

But Cam Winton, who's running with the support of the city's Republican Party, says there's no way St. Louis Park will accept the freight trains now. Winton would like to see the entire light rail route redesigned so it runs next to the Midtown Greenway bike trail and through more populous parts of the city.

"Instead of putting the rail line through the woods, as the current plan does, it puts the rail line where people live -- in Uptown and up Nicollet Avenue," Winton said.

Other candidates pointed out planners considered that alternative route several years ago, but decided it was unworkable.

Software executive Stephanie Woodruff, who has the Independence Party's endorsement in the race, says the whole situation is a mess -- only she uses an more colorful expression.

"When I think of that, I think the word 'cluster' comes to mind," Woodruff said.

There was more to the debate than just the light rail issue. On property taxes, all the candidates promised not to raise them -- at least during their first year in office. But only Park Board Commissioner Bob Fine is running on a pledge to cut taxes. Fine says the reduction outgoing mayor R.T. Rybak has proposed for next year doesn't go far enough.

"Frankly, the one percent that's been proposed by the mayor is only a small part of the state government aid that was returned to the city," Fine said. "And I really believe that we can cut property taxes a lot."

The candidates also discussed how to deal with police officers who misbehave -- both on and off duty. Several candidates decried a recent incident in Green Bay Wisconsin, where off-duty Minneapolis police officers allegedly used racial slurs.  Several candidates argue the city needs to make it easier to fire cops who step out of line.

"If that kind of behavior took place in any private institution ... their lockers would be cleaned up and their stuff would be on the street before the day was over," former City Council President Dan Cohen said.

Candidate and Council Member Don Samuels has called for the officers in the Green Bay incident to resign voluntarily. But he says city employees are entitled to due process before they can be fired.

"It's easy to say they should be fired. You just can't do that," council member Don Samuels said. "And if you try to do that as leader, mayor or the chief, it comes back to bite you."

The debate included the eight candidates waging the most active campaigns for Minneapolis mayor,  but another 27 candidates have registered to place their names on the ballot. Voters won't have to choose just one of them, though. The city's ranked choice voting system allows for a first choice candidate, a second choice and a third.

Listen to the full debate:

Minneapolis mayoral candidates debate issues at the Minnesota State Fair on August 26, 2013