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Southwest light rail: Final, divided hearing sets stage for vote

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Latest SWLRT map of Kenilworth Corridor
Latest SWLRT map of Kenilworth Corridor
Courtesy Metropolitan Council

Supporters and opponents of the proposed $1.6 billion Southwest light rail link between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie packed a public hearing Tuesday night to make their final cases to the Minneapolis City Council.

More than a month after negotiators from Minneapolis and Metropolitan Council struck a tentative deal to allow the Southwest light rail plan to move forward, the project remains deeply divisive among Minneapolis residents.

• Activists want bus connection to Southwest light rail

  It's cost -- half of which would be paid for by the federal government -- and its route through the edge of Minneapolis between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles, remain as sticking points.

"This process has been a snowballing mass of bad decisions, missed opportunities and wasted money," said one opponent, David Ruebeck.

Supporters say the investment is too big for Minneapolis to pass up.

"Particularly if you believe in growing the population of Minneapolis, and if you believe in building vibrant, thriving local enconomies, and if you believe in closing the equity gap," said supporter Russ Adams, executive director of the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability.

The equity gap is shorthand for the persistent disparities between the city's white and minority populations. A coalition of groups representing minority communities has rallied behind the line, because of its potential to create jobs.

But Russell Palma, who lives right next to the proposed line, says advocates have oversold its potential benefit to the city's impoverished north side.

"To pretend the proposed alignment will create significant north Minneapolis ridership flies in the face of geography and logic," he said.

The route's three planned stations in North Minneapolis are in sparsely populated areas, and are projected to attract far fewer riders than the suburban stops along the line. But north Minneapolis activist Mel Reeves said that shouldn't stop the council from approving the plan.

"I know that once the power structure decides it wants to do something, I know it's pretty much going to get done," he said. "So from that perspective, I say that if the trains definitely coming, let's make sure that everybody can get on board" to improve overall transit options.

Both see Southwest light rail gaining momentum as it heads to a final City Council vote next week. If the council does back the project, it will represent a remarkable turnaround. Just five months ago, the council voted to oppose running light rail trains alongside an existing freight rail line as they pass between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

But the city failed to force a re-route of the freight trains. Instead, it negotiated $30 million worth of improvements to its portion of the line, as well as assurances that the land underneath the freight tracks would stay publicly owned.

Mary Pattock, who lives near the proposed route, said that's little consolation. She urged the council to reject the deal.

"If you allow the Met Council, and to that I will add Hennepin County, to tread roughshod over Minneapolis now, you will have set a political precedent that will lead inexorably to the turning of our beautiful City of Lakes into a mere suburban utility," she said.

The Hennepin County board voted yesterday to back the deal.

Pattock and other opponents aren't giving up though. They've hired high-powered lawyers, who argue the Met Council needs to do additional environmental studies before it can secure the city's permission to proceed with Southwest Light Rail. The lawyers haven't ruled out filing a lawsuit if Minneapolis votes yes.


Editor's note (10:40 a.m., Aug. 20, 2014):  An earlier version of this story misnamed the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability. The story has been updated.