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Southwest Twin Cities light rail plan faces crucial vote

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Proposed Southwest LRT route map
This map shows the proposed route of the Southwest Light Rail Transit line.
Courtesy Metropolitan Council

The Metropolitan Council is expected to approve plans Wednesday for what would be the Twin Cities' third light rail line, connecting the urban core to the southwest suburbs.

Once that happens, the focus of the roughly $1.7 billion Southwest transit project will shift to the city of Minneapolis. There, city leaders must determine over the next few months if they can support the contentious plan to send the passenger trains through tunnels beneath a wooded recreational corridor.

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Advocates of the project already are making their pitch to Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and other city leaders to soften their stance and support the project.

While the light rail debate to date has largely focused on how to preserve the character of the leafy Kenilworth corridor and bike trail, social-justice groups from the city's north side are sounding a different message about equity.

ISAIAH president Rev. Paul Slack suggested the city use its leverage with the Metropolitan Council to exact some improvements for the community.

"We believe Minneapolis needs to say 'yes' to the Southwest light rail being built, and Mayor Hodges, as well as Chair Haigh and Hennepin County, need to come together to negotiate the benefits for all of Minneapolis," Slack said from a bus stop near Penn and Broadway avenues.

Pastor Paul Slack
Pastor Paul Slack, president of a coalition of churches called ISAIAH, calls on the city of Minneapolis to support the Southwest Light Rail Line at a press conference on Tuesday, April 8, 2014.
Curtis Gilbert / MPR News

Those benefits might include jobs, expanded bus lines that could ensure access to the train, and something as simple as bus shelters. The north-side groups have also floated the idea of streetcars -- a system Minneapolis city leaders want, but have yet to find a way to finance.

But trying to divine what will make Minneapolis happy has been difficult. At last week's advisory board meeting for the project, Hodges seemed to further entrench her position against the plan to send the LRT trains through tunnels while keeping freight trains in the city's cherished Kenilworth corridor.

"I will not on behalf of my constituents vote 'yes' to lose on everything when there are other and better alternatives that we could and should pursue," the mayor said.

Hodges thinks the Met Council should still push to relocate the freight out of Kenilworth, over the objections of the railroad company. A spokeswoman for Hodges said the mayor's position hasn't changed since last week.

The Minneapolis City Council has echoed the mayor's concerns. Last month it voted unanimously for a resolution against the tunnels. But there appear to be some cracks in the resolve. 

Council member Alondra Cano said she can't support the shallow tunnels option today and still favors a freight reroute. But Cano said if Minneapolis eventually signs onto the light rail project, it should negotiate for additional concessions regarding racial equity. 

"I think some council members would be open to voting 'yes.' I think other council members are going to vote 'no,' and I don't know where the vote count lies today," Cano said. "But I do know that there's a strong voice for having more Minneapolis residents, more people of color and more low-income communities get access to this transportation project."

City Council Member Andrew Johnson, agreed that the freight reroute remains the best option for Minneapolis.

Light rail University Ave.
A light rail train waits at a station on University Ave. in St. Paul, Minn., Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. More than 100 Central Corridor Green Line operators began training on the light rail line connecting downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis Monday.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

But if that fails to happen, Johnson is still intrigued by a proposal to bring the light-rail trains through a deep tunnel beneath a water channel connecting Cedar Lake to Lake of the Isles. The advisory board to the project recommended the less expensive option of taking the trains on a new bridge across the water channel. 

"At the end of the day, I'm eager to see light rail happen," Johnson said.

There appears to be ample room for negotiation as Minneapolis and the Met Council try to close the distance between them. 

The light-rail project needs seven votes on the city council to provide "municipal consent." Hodges could veto the action, and the council would need a total of nine votes to override it.

Under state law, the Met Council must seek the support of all five cities touching the line, and the council -- made up of members appointed by the governor -- has never gone against the wishes of a city. Gov. Mark Dayton has said he couldn't see the project going forward without Minneapolis' approval.

Although the law allows a lengthy give-and-take process that could extend negotiations until the fall, the project faces a more pressing deadline at the end of June. That's when the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which is expected to pay nearly a third of Southwest's $1.7 billion cost, wants the affected cities to fall in line.

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MPR News reporter Curtis Gilbert contributed to this story.