MN: Minneapolis Deal Could Postpone Southwest LRT Votes

A potential light-rail deal crafted in closed-door negotiations between transit planners and Minneapolis is catching other communities along the Southwest Corridor by surprise and threatening to delay scheduled votes on the project.

St. Louis Park was poised Monday night to approve plans for the $1.68 billion project, but postponed a vote to learn more about the proposed changes, which Minneapolis officials are expected to disclose for the first time Tuesday.

"This is too big of an issue and there are too many unknowns for us to take a vote based on something that could change in 12 to 24 hours," said St. Louis Park City Council Member Jake Spano.

The Council rescheduled the vote for Monday, but the latest developments raised the prospect that the project won't win the approval of all cities along the nearly 16-mile route by a July 14 deadline set by the Metropolitan Council, the agency planning the project. The changes could require additional reviews that might push back approval of the project for weeks.

Dropping a tunnel, turning over half of the resulting savings to Minneapolis for other transit-related improvements and adding a rail station are at the heart of the emerging deal.

The new plans would anger some residents of the Minneapolis Kenilworth corridor, where light-rail trains would run at ground level instead of in a tunnel north of a water channel. It would, on the other hand, please other Minneapolis residents who see the new station as a link to bus routes.

The details were described by two sources familiar with the closed-door talks who said the proposed changes were likely to become the focus of a public hearing Tuesday night in Minneapolis. The agency and city have not confirmed that a deal is in the works or the subject of the hearing, which was announced on the eve of the July 4th holiday.

"The whole approach is designed to mute opposition, not to promote transparency," Carleton College political science Prof. Steven Schier said Monday.

"So many people were tuned out ... going up to their cabins," said Courtney Cushing Kiernat, who lives along the light-rail path and is critical of the proposed route.

Seeking support

Kenilworth corridor residents have objected to running Southwest at ground level next to existing freight trains, so the Met Council last year proposed tunnels north and south of a channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake to hide the transit. Residents near the path of the future light rail remained unhappy.

The new deal described by sources involves eliminating the light-rail tunnel north of the channel and running the transit at ground level there. It's not likely to satisfy the critics.

"I'd be disappointed with that, for sure," said Lee Lynch, who lives on Cedar Lake.

But eliminating one tunnel could pare tens of millions of dollars from the project's price tag, and the proposed deal might allow half of the savings to be used by Minneapolis for improvements or rehabilitation along the route. The tunnel planned for south of the channel would still be built. The two tunnels had been expected to add $160 million to the project costs.

Running the light rail at ground level north of the channel also would allow for a Kenilworth corridor station at 21st Street, which had been scratched as too expensive with a tunnel. Transit advocates have urged city officials to build the station to connect with buses on Franklin Avenue.

Path forward

Minneapolis faces a July 14 deadline under state law to hold a public hearing and vote to approve or reject plans for the project. The Minneapolis hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Anwatin Middle School auditorium probably won't count as the necessary public hearing because any new deal worked out between negotiators for the city and Met Council must first be endorsed by metro leaders and Met Council members who earlier signed off on the two-tunnel plan.

While no timetable has been announced, the metro leaders scheduled a special meeting Wednesday morning to discuss Southwest Corridor, and the Met Council will hold its regular meeting Wednesday. If they approve a new Southwest plan for the Kenilworth corridor, the Minneapolis City Council could later hold a hearing and vote on it. But the deadline might be moved back weeks.

Minnetonka and Hopkins have approved the Southwest plans. Eden Prairie has scheduled a vote for Monday.


Pat Doyle -- 612-673-4504

Copyright 2014 - Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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