Metro leaders back Southwest light rail shallow tunnels as Minneapolis objects

Southwest LRT
One of the "pinch points" along the Kenilworth trail, Aug. 14, 2013.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News, file

Despite strong objections from Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, a group of Twin Cities leaders endorsed a plan to build light-rail tunnels through the city's popular Kenilworth Corridor.

Criticizing a "fundamental failure of fairness" in the planning process, Hodges cast one of two dissenting votes against the tunnel plan. The mayor said light-rail planners never seriously considered the alternative to reroute the freight line from Kenilworth to St. Louis Park.

She criticized the neighboring suburb, as well as the Metropolitan Council, saying her city never would have supported the current alignment if it knew the freight would remain in Kenilworth.

"What you are asking me to do right now on behalf of Minneapolis is to lose on absolutely everything we cared about and put forward," Hodges said. "We're going to be getting our third choice for freight and our fourth choice for LRT, which are shallow tunnels that we don't want and did not ask for. Asking Minneapolis to lose everything is something I will not say 'yes' to."

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That prompted Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin to say he found her remarks "astounding."

"They're getting this major line that's going to reinforce Minneapolis as the economic center of the state," McLaughlin said after the meeting. "This is the future economic skeleton for the region. To have this line join Hiawatha and Central [light-rail lines], it's a huge step forward for the city of Minneapolis."

Hodges' position signals a battle ahead between the state's largest city and the Metropolitan Council, which is planning the project. The regional agency is trying to secure the approval of all the affected cities on the nearly 16-mile line to Eden Prairie. But project planners believe the Met Council could proceed without Minneapolis' support.

Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, who cast the other "no" vote, objected to the project's rising costs. Transit service is now projected to start in 2019, with a price tag of nearly $1.7 billion.

Today's action is merely a recommendation to the Met Council, which will vote April 9.

More than 50 people testified in support of and against the project, which has been mired for months over the question of what to do with existing freight traffic in Kenilworth.

The 11-to-2 vote, while fairly predictable, followed some surprisingly creative testimony from the public. Sara Brenner, who lives in the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis, chose to make her case against the favored route through poetry:

"Is this really the line you wanted?" she asked. "Is it worth the lives you've haunted? This line is not about good planning. It has become a game of scamming. It is time to move away from this alignment if freight does stay."

Brenner echoed the arguments of many others in Minneapolis, who told the Corridor Management Committee that it makes no sense to build a light-rail line that bypasses dense areas such as Uptown. Other residents worried about forever changing the character of a cherished bike trail and water channel popular with canoeists.

Artist rendering
This artist rendering shows the how the proposed Southwest light rail route through the Kenwood neighborhood and along the Kenilworth Trail in Minneapolis would look to boaters at the bridge over the canal between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Council

But advocates for north Minneapolis and low-income communities who could benefit from greater access to jobs in the southwest suburbs urged the council to advance the project.

Harry Savage, an Uptown resident, said the concerns of Kenilworth neighbors were "petty" and amounted to racism.

"Just push it through and do it," Savage said. "We want you to do it. Be a transit czar, Met Council. Stop listening to these trivial concerns."

The plan calls for a tunnel on each side of the Kenilworth channel, which runs between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. Trains would cross the channel over a bridge.

Andy Hestness, vice president of the Native American Community Development Institute in the Phillips neighborhood, suggested dropping the northern tunnel to preserve the 21st Street station, which he said is the best way Franklin Avenue buses in south Minneapolis could access the proposed light-rail line.

"It's all about connectivity," Hestness said.

Some committee members, eager to shave up to $60 million by eliminating one of the tunnels, seized on the idea. They asked Hodges her thoughts on the plan, but she said defending the shallow tunnels in any form put her in a difficult position.

A proposal to reroute a section of the freight line to St. Louis Park fell out of favor with light-rail planners because it would involve acquiring homes and businesses, would delay the project even more, and drew staunch opposition from a railroad.

St. Louis Park resident Gail Miller said elected officials have trivialized the concerns of St. Louis Park, so that "the quality of life in St. Louis Park is not as important as the quality of life in Kenwood."

It's unclear what the Met Council can do to bring Minneapolis on board with Southwest. The City Council recently passed a unanimous resolution against the tunnels, but some believe a compromise can still be worked out over the next few months to keep the project on track.

Gov. Mark Dayton told reporters today that the law is vague on whether the Met Council could push Southwest forward without Minneapolis' support.

But Dayton, who halted key decisions on the project in October to build consensus on the line, said a June 30 deadline by a regional board that funds the light-rail project means it's time to make some decisions.

"This has to get resolved one way or the other," the governor said. "Either Minneapolis gives municipal consent, and the project goes forward under whatever the conditions of that agreement, or they deny it, and the project is basically terminated, and I think the future of public transit in the metropolitan area is seriously damaged and set back for a number of years."

More: Choo Choo Bob explains the Southwest light rail conundrum