Fate of Southwest LRT at stake, legislators warn

Kenilworth trail fliers
A cyclist rode the Kenilworth trail last month in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Hart Van Denburg

Two Minneapolis legislators who wield considerable influence on transportation policy and funding warned Monday that a dispute over a rail corridor could imperil the entire Southwest LRT project.

Sen. Scott Dibble, chairman of the Senate Transportation & Public Safety Committee, said on The Daily Circuit that the opposition from Minneapolis and St. Louis Park "absolutely" could sink the transit line.

"We're strong supporters of Southwest LRT," said Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis. "It's a critical investment in our region to connect people to jobs in both directions, to school, activities of daily life, guiding our growth so we don't force a huge overly expensive roadway system."

"But this is a 50- to 100-year investment. LRT is supposed to bring an enhancement to our overall quality of life. It was always assumed, always assumed, that freight rail was going to go somewhere else" besides the Kenilworth Corridor in Minneapolis, Dibble said. "When all of a sudden this whole conversation about co-location was foisted upon us a couple of months ago, it came as a real stunner."

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Dibble's counterpart in the House, fellow Minneapolis DFLer Frank Hornstein of the House Transportation Finance Committee, said "we have to have another option" for the freight line that now shares the corridor with bicycles and pedestrians.

Since Met Council planners have eliminated a number of alternatives, two that remain under consideration are a shallow tunnel for light rail under the Kenilworth Corridor and an elevated berm for freight rail in St. Louis Park. Those choices have kindled strong opposition in both cities.

"Right now, because of the opposition in St. Louis Park and in Minneapolis, we have to make sure that no stone is left unturned before we can proceed," Hornstein said. He and Dibble recently wrote to the Met Council, asking it "to take another look at some additional freight rail options to the west of us and make sure that everything was thoroughly studied before moving forward. It's a simple request. And I think many people are on board with that idea."

But Dibble appeared to go further, saying that local opposition could stop the project in its tracks.

"Municipal consent is not a small matter," he said. "The city of Minneapolis in particular has been quite clear for quite some time now that their support for putting LRT through the Kenilworth Corridor — which has a huge impact on the Kenilworth Corridor, so it was a pretty tough pill to swallow — was contingent upon the relocation of freight rail, as has been assumed for almost 20 years now. ... They need to achieve that support and consent of the locally impacted communities. St. Louis Park has said they won't deliver municipal consent if the options on the table stand; Minneapolis has been quite clear they're not going to deliver municipal consent if the options that are sitting on the table stand."

Dibble said the freight line's course through the corridor "was a temporary routing of that particular tiny segment of freight rail through that little stretch. It was going to go somewhere else. That was always assumed from the first day it was routed onto that alignment." But he added that he was "sympathetic to St. Louis Park. "The options that have been laid on the table for them are completely unacceptable as well. So we really need to take a look" at other options, Dibble said, such as those proposed to the Met Council in a recent letter from Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

"The Met Council is not saving any time or speeding anything up by simply dismissing and turning their back on a number of really interesting ideas that the mayor's laid on the table for them to take a look at," Dibble said.

Dibble and Hornstein wrote a Star Tribune opinion piece over the weekend arguing that transportation expansion is the key to making vital urban neighborhoods attractive to young people:

Improving and expanding transit choices consists of building out a system of light-rail and commuter-rail corridors, more-frequent and faster local bus service, bike infrastructure and safe pedestrian walkways, and a new modern streetcar system.

Cities very similar to Minneapolis, such as Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City and Denver, are moving forward and creating the neighborhoods and transit systems so many Minnesotans are waiting for. And they're realizing the payoff -- significant growth in their core cities, new jobs, and attracting the best and brightest professionals from around the country.