Southwest light rail foes file lawsuit

The proposed Southwest light rail route
The proposed Southwest light rail route.
Courtesy Metropolitan Council

Opponents of the current plan to build the Southwest light rail line filed a lawsuit in federal court on Monday.

The nonprofit Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis argues in the suit that appropriate environmental review hasn't been conducted on the route through the Kenilworth Corridor -- a popular recreation area. They're asking that the court stop the Metropolitan Council from moving ahead on the project until those reviews are completed.

"Both the region and local residents are entitled to the thorough, legally required review of the environmental impacts, economic costs and human hazards of this new plan, before the Met Council triggers the municipal consent process," said alliance board member George Puzak.

The current plan would keep freight trains beside a bike trail in the Kenilworth Corridor and run the light rail trains through a shallow tunnel. The passenger trains would surface at a bridge between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

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The Federal Transit Administration, the Metropolitan Council and Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh are named in the suit.

The $1.6 billion Southwest light rail line would extend 16 miles from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. It's expected to open in 2019.

A Met Council spokeswoman declined to comment on the suit, but in a written statement said a new municipal consent process will be required if the forthcoming study triggers a change to the plan's design.

"Minnesota law requires the Metropolitan Council to ask for municipal consent again if there is a substantial change from the physical design components of the preliminary design plans. We did this on the Blue Line with the city of Bloomington in 2003," said Met Council communications director Meredith Vadis.

She also said work on the project will continue unless it is ordered by the court to stop.

Alliance members say they are not against light rail transit. They say they would prefer the trains run through a part of the city that is more heavily populated.

However, Sigrid Hutcheson who lives in one of the affluent neighborhoods that will be affected by construction, said she fears the lawsuit will stop the light rail line altogether.

"We will have proved that money tops the common good. And if you get enough influential people to donate enough money you can stop a light rail line from going through your neighborhood," she said.

Other residents who live near the proposed route, disagree.

Linda Bearinger, a public health nurse who works with residents of north Minneapolis, said she opposes the project partially because she doesn't think it will serve north side residents.

"This is not the way to create equity, to bring people to the jobs, it's not really going to achieve that," she said. "When you look at where the stations will be and so on and so forth - down in the suburban areas, it will not achieve that goal."

One station along the proposed route would be located close to the Harrison and Heritage Park neighborhoods of the city's north side.

Alliance attorney Tom Johnson says it's possible a federal judge may rule on the suit before the end of the year.

The lawsuit is not without precedent. Three suits, including one by Minnesota Public Radio, were filed during the construction of the Central Corridor Light Rail project, now called the Green Line. However, that project was completed on schedule, and trains began running in June.

Here's the Lakes and Parks Alliance lawsuit