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Southwest light rail proposal wins Minneapolis City Council approval

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Updated 5 p.m.

The Minneapolis City Council on Friday voted 10-3 to support a compromise plan to build the Southwest light rail project.

Kenilworth corridor
The Kenilworth corridor on the proposed Southwest light rail route.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

The vote removed the biggest political hurdle standing in the project's way. It came a day after a key council panel backed the project despite continuing worries over the route and its potential effects on the city.

Five months ago, the city appeared to be on a collision course with the Metropolitan Council over the project. Mediation helped the two sides reach the compromise the council agreed to on Friday.

A key sticking point was the train's route through the Kenilworth Corridor, a narrow strip of land between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. 

For many, it's still an issue.

Council member Lisa Goodman, who represents Kenilworth Corridor residents, voted against the plan, along with Council president Barb Johnson and council member Cam Gordon. Goodman said she remained concerned about the impact of a tunnel on the lakes and the area environment.

Latest SWLRT map of Kenilworth Corridor
A map shows proposed stations on the Southwest light rail route
Courtesy Metropolitan Council

Even council members who voted in favor of that approval didn't sound terribly enthusiastic about it.  

Many complained about the contentious process and accused the Metropolitan Council of breaking promises to the city.  

Council member Lisa Bender said many of her constituents would have preferred the line run through the densely populated neighborhoods of the Uptown area instead of near the wooded trails near city lakes.  

"If I believed that voting no today would give us better transit service in the future in our city, I would take that vote," she said. "I'm voting yes today because I believe that the Southwest light rail train is the first step toward giving our neighborhoods the best transit system in the region."

The current route design will bury part of the line underground to make room for freight train tracks already running through part of the corridor.

Several council members said it was frustrating their votes were required before they had more information on the possible effects of the project's shallow tunnel. 

An environmental assessment of the tunnel is due in January. 

The lack of an environmental impact statement didn't bother council member Andrew Johnson who voted yes. He said members of the local watershed district have told him they predict little to no impact on the water table of the nearby lakes. 

However, the group Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis sent a letter to the city earlier this year saying state law requires such a review to be completed before a city can grant municipal consent.  

A spokesman for the group says it is considering all its options, including a lawsuit.

Bender said a resolution also passed by the council gives the city attorney the authority to pursue litigation if the impact statement reveals a risk to the nearby lakes.

The $1.6 billion project would extend 16 miles, from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. It's expected to open in 2019.