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Southwest light rail mediator forges deal; no formal approval yet

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Traveling through Minneapolis
A light rail train in Minneapolis
Caroline Yang / For MPR News

The City of Minneapolis and the Metropolitan Council have struck a tentative deal that will allow the proposed Southwest light rail transit  project to move forward. Negotiators for the two sides spent two months hammering out the compromise behind closed doors with the help of a mediator. 

The 16-mile, $1.65 billion extension of the Green Line would be the most expensive transit project in state history.

The terms of the deal

  The deal, which still needs formal approval from both the Met Council and the Minneapolis City Council, modifies a controversial plan to bury the trains in shallow tunnels as they pass between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. It preserves the tunnel south of the channel that connects the lakes, but it eliminates the north tunnel. That will save the project money. 

Met Council Chair Sue Haigh said that while the agreement isn't final, it's a big step toward finally securing Minneapolis' consent.

• Haigh talks about the tentative deal on The Daily Circuit

"I think this is a really important milestone, and there is a very good-faith commitment on the part of the City Council members who are part of the negotiation team, as well as the mayor and mayor's representative, to advance this project to the City Council for their support later this summer, in August," she said.

  Why no north tunnel?

  Eliminating the north tunnel saves money. Some of that will go to address some of the city's concerns about noise as well as pedestrian access to the line and landscaping around it. The rest of the savings would go to taxpayers. The agreement reduces the overall price tag of the project by $30 million.

  Taking out the north tunnel also allows light rail planners to restore a light rail station at 21st Street in Minneapolis. That had been nixed from the plans to make room for the north tunnel. More stations means more access to the line for Minneapolis residents. In particular, American Indian activists argued that station was critical for their community to benefit from Southwest light rail.

"The stations along Southwest LRT, at least those in Minneapolis, are remote, inaccessible and hard to find, compared to the stations that we're accustomed to along the Central Corridor or along Hiawatha for that matter, which are easy to find and accessible from all directions," city policy director Peter Wagenius said.

"From a transportation perspective, the south tunnel is necessary, both to maintain the second most well-used bike trail in the city, second only to the Midtown Greenway, but we also want to avoid an at-grade crossing at Cedar Lake Parkway," Wagenius said. "Avoiding an at-grade crossing at Cedar Lake Parkway will make the conditions there significantly safer."

  Didn't the tunnels meet a city concern?

Yes, they were added to address the city's concerns, but no, Minneapolis never wanted them. What Minneapolis wanted was to get rid of the freight trains that currently run through the area between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. But it lost that battle. The Twin Cities and Western Railroad rejected a proposal to move its trains to St. Louis Park, and St. Louis Park rejected it, too. 

  The south tunnel is still in the plan, because that's the only way to save a popular Minneapolis recreation trail. But the trail can survive without the north tunnel.

Freight rail will continue to run through the Kenilworth Corridor. One of two planned tunnels for the light rail trains is being dropped between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. The tunnel south of the channel between the two lakes will remain part of the plan to accomodate LRT, freight rail and a popular recreational trail.

City council member Elizabeth Glidden said it was a necessary sacrifice.

"The idea with making this very difficult choice or recommendation to eliminate the north shallow tunnel in part is about how how to make these stations best serve, within the project budget, the most residents possible," Glidden said.

Will the deal make everyone happy?  

That's doubtful. Doing away with the north tunnel means some residents in the upscale Kenwood neighborhood will have to put up with both freight trains and light rail trains running above ground, right next to their back yards. And while the price tag on this project has dropped a little, it's still going to be well over $1.6 billion -- hundreds of millions more than originally projected.  

Is the rail line project moving ahead, then?

Not necessarily. Half of the project budget is supposed to come from the federal government. Those grants are awarded through a competitive process. And it's only become more competitive as other cities around the country have gotten in line, while Minneapolis and the Met Council have been fighting over this one. State funding isn't guaranteed, either. We don't even know which party will control the Minnesota House next year, or the governor's office for that matter. We also can't say with 100 percent certainty that this deal is actually a deal. As of yesterday, several members of the Minneapolis City Council still hadn't even been briefed.  

When does Minneapolis vote?  

Not until next month. The rest of the cities along the line have until next Monday to vote, but because the Minneapolis portion of the line has changed as a result of this agreement, it's getting more time. Minneapolis residents won't have to wait that long to weigh in, though. The city's holding a public meeting about the deal at 7 p.m.