Over the protest of Minneapolis, metro leaders signed off Wednesday on a $160 million plan to hide part of the region's biggest light-rail line in tunnels through a recreational corridor in the city.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak cast the lone no vote among 16 mayors, county commissioners and other leaders. He deplored a lack of alternatives to the tunnels and questioned whether they would harm two of the city's lakes.
"I don't think we have put to bed the question of what impact they will have on the lakes," Rybak told the other leaders.
But he also left open the possibility of eventually accepting some version of the project, pledging to "stay at the table" as the plan moves forward over the next few months.
The endorsement of the tunnel plan by the panel of metro leaders sends it to the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project, for approval as early as next week.
The decision ends one divisive chapter in the Southwest Corridor project and likely opens another if the Met Council approves the plan and seeks the consent of Rybak and other Minneapolis officials who have come out against it. The agency is required by state law to seek the consent of the five cities along the route. A refusal by Minneapolis could stall or even jeopardize the project.
Rybak had some allies Wednesday in Hennepin County officials who asked colleagues to keep open the option of rerouting freight train traffic to St. Louis Park to make room for the light-rail next to bike and hiking trails in the wooded Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis. Rybak and county commissioners maintain that planners ignored promises over the years that the freight would be rerouted in exchange for running the light-rail through the corridor.
But a bid by Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, Rybak and two other leaders to keep the freight reroute option alive failed. Instead, the plan that emerged says light-rail planners will "discontinue any further work related to the freight rail relocation out of the Kenilworth corridor."
'Irresponsible to walk away now'
Dorfman said shutting the door on rerouting the freight could leave the project "dead on arrival" when planners seek the consent of Minneapolis. But she and others with misgivings ultimately voted in favor of the project, saying the line from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie planned for over a decade would bring jobs and other economic benefits to the west metro region.
"It would be irresponsible to walk away from it now," she said.
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who also pressed for more freight reroute options, struck a similar tone.
"This is a huge step," McLaughlin said, adding the project would bring hundreds of millions of federal dollars to the region. "It's not a time to falter."
"We can protect the trails, we can protect the green space," he said.
Plan deemed less disruptive
The plan involves digging nearly half-mile-long tunnels on either side of the water channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. The trains would climb out of the tunnels and cross a bridge over the channel in a 360-yard stretch where they would be exposed for roughly 20 seconds.
The $160 million tunnel option was deemed less disruptive than both more- and less-costly alternatives, including rerouting the freight trains to St. Louis Park at a cost of $200 million. But it faces fierce opposition from some in Minneapolis who say the trains surface for too long and who distrust assurances that bike trails and lakes will be preserved.
The Metropolitan Council says the tunnels are the least obtrusive of several options. Rerouting trains to St. Louis Park would have required removal of 30 properties there. Keeping the freight in Minneapolis and burying the light-rail line nearby would spare those St. Louis Park properties. It also would spare Minneapolis townhouses that would be razed to make room for the transit if it were built at ground level next to freight tracks and recreational trails in the narrowest part of the corridor south of Cedar Lake Parkway.