More cities sign off on SW light rail agreement

Latest SWLRT map
Latest SWLRT map
Courtesy Metropolitan Council

A deal between Minneapolis and the Metropolitan Council over the proposed Southwest light rail line has won approval from the leaders of other cities along the line.

An advisory board that includes officials from Eden Prairie, St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka, on Wednesday voted to support the agreement, although several suggested Minneapolis is receiving special treatment.

Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison, who also sits on the Corridor Management Committee, urged members to set those concerns aside.

Callison urged the board members to "stop thinking about 'what did my community get that some other community did not get' or vice versa, and to really put on our hats about what's good for the region."

"This is a good step forward," she said. "And I think we all have the opportunity to really set a new way of thinking about these projects and how we think about our communities."

As part of the deal, Minneapolis won up to $30 million in improvements to its portion of the line.

Other cities are seeking similar enhancements, but will have to pay for them with unspent contingency funds if any are available.

While the agreement with the city won from the leaders of other cities along the proposed line, several expressed jealousy over some of the improvements Minneapolis secured for its portion of the project.

What are the other cities concerned about?

Minneapolis secured a package of enhancements as part of the deal: better pedestrian access to light rail stations, safety improvements to nearby freight rail tracks, noise reduction measures and nicer landscaping around the portion of the line that runs between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. The deal guarantees the city up to $30 million for those upgrades. And the other cities along the line are interested in those types of upgrades as well.

Are these other cities eligible for these kinds of upgrades?

Yes, but they're not getting any promises right now. All the cities have ideas for improving the line. But in order to pay for the items on their wish lists, they'll have to wait and see if there's any money left over in the project's contingency fund. If the federal government agrees to finance the project, it will require a large contingency fund estimated at around $300 million. But that money might be needed to address actual contingencies -- unexpected construction problems. So there's no guarantee any of it will be available for the local improvements.

How did Minneapolis respond at the meeting?

Minneapolis characterizes the improvements as mitigation measures. The city was originally told freight trains that run along the proposed routes would be relocated. When that turned out to be impossible, Minneapolis threatened to pull its support for the project. So it says the landscaping, safety and access improvements are all designed to make up for problems caused by the failure to remove the freight trains. By the way, Met Council Chair Sue Haigh insists Minneapolis didn't get special treatment.

Minneapolis also won a promise that those freight tracks would remain publicly owned. What do the other cities think of that?

They voted to support that idea in principal, but it wasn't unanimous. St. Louis Park in particular was concerned the deal gave too much power to Minneapolis. You'll remember Minneapolis pushed hard to have the freight trains re-routed through St. Louis Park. And even though that effort failed, there's still not a lot of trust between those two cities, when it comes to freight trains.

So why did these cities approve the deal, if they have all these concerns?

They want to see this project go forward, and the deal with Minneapolis is the only way to put it back on track.

What's next?

It'll go to the Minneapolis City Council for a vote next month. Two council members and Mayor Betsy Hodges were part of the negotiating committee, and several council members have spoken favorably about deal. So there's definitely momentum to approve the project. But there's still plenty of opposition to this route in the city. A council committee heard three hours of public comment on it last night. And if that crowd is any indication, the deal didn't win over many opponents.