Southwest Light Rail Project Encountering Some Hurdles


Train

[The Green Line train. Photo courtesy of Met Council]

By John Abraham-Watne

The Southwest Light Rail project, which will run light rail tracks all the way from downtown Minneapolis to the suburban areas of Eden Prairie, is the costliest and possibly most contentious public transportation project in the last half-century of Minnesota history. The current plan has been in the works for several years and has seen many revisions. Last year’s closed-door mediation between the City of Minneapolis and the Met Council resulted in a Memorandum of Understanding that resolved many of the outstanding issues between these two government entities. These included co-location of the freight rail in the Kenilworth Corridor, removal of one shallow tunnel from the plans, and the inclusion of a station at 21st Street. Minneapolis officials made it known after these tense negotiations that they were not happy about their outcomes but that they accepted the decisions. The Minneapolis City Council has since voted for municipal consent of the SWLRT plan. Minneapolis was the final city to do so, allowing the Met Council to begin preliminary engineering.

The project looked to be moving forward at the end of 2014 when it encountered two different hurdles. The first one was a lawsuit filed by Lakes & Parks Alliance of Minnesota that alleges the Met Council did not perform its due environmental diligence with regards to the proper studies needed before the engineering process can pick up in 2015 (see here for more). The second setback was an engineering study commissioned by the Minneapolis Park Board that looked at whether a bridge over the Kenilworth corridor is less feasible than a tunnel underneath the channel (see here for more). Peter Callaghan at MinnPost reports that the MBP study “determined that a sub-channel tunnel is feasible, and proposed two possible methods: cut and cover, in which a trench is dug, the tunnel framed and then refilled; and what it termed a ‘jacked box’ method.” Callaghan also states that in a letter to the MPRB outgoing Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh tore into the engineering study, saying that “spending nearly $4M per foot of daylight fails a basic test of common sense and neither I, nor the Governor, will support increasing the project budget to accommodate it.”

The MPRB is taking these steps even further, now asking the Federal Transit Administration to intervene. According to Cali Owings with Finance & Commerce, in a letter to the FTA the Park Board “suggests the Met Council deprived the Park Board of its ability to develop design alternatives to protect park land.” If the FTA does decide to intercede in this matter it could delay the project indefinitely. Owings quoted Peter McLaughlin, Chairman of the Counties Transit Improvement Board as saying, “because you have the authority to stop a project doesn’t mean it’s the right judgment about the future of the park resource or the future of the environment.”

As if these tumultuous developments weren’t enough, state politics is now encroaching. In a recent interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Governor Mark Dayton gave a less-than-optimistic view about this situation:

“I would say that unless the people who want better public transit get behind this project and really insist that the process be speeded up and carried out, we’ll go back to what we have now and add bus lanes and whatever else. Some people think that’s a better approach anyway, so we may by default into that anyway.”

Dayton went on to say he won’t seek any additional state funding for this project until the citizen lawsuit and the Park Board study are figured out, and incoming Republican members of the Minnesota House of Representatives have already stated they intend to focus on out-state issues. House Speaker Kurt Daudt said in a recent interview that he is “ruling out” any funding for the project. These revelations combined with Dayton’s statements seem to set an even higher bar for the funding this project needs. Your reporter reached out to State Senator Scott Dibble’s office for comment but did not hear back by publication time.

This entire mess looks to become more complicated before it gets better. Many citizens of the areas where the stations are planned reflect these concerns (see my dispatch from a contentious station-area meeting with representatives of the Met Council last year), and both the citizen lawsuit and the park board study are supported by various factions who think this entire project could have been handled much better. Your reporter has heard grumblings from various parts of his neighborhood (West Calhoun) about the engineering process and a perceived lack of public engagement by both the Met Council and the City of Minneapolis. I wanted to see what our Council Member thinks about this situation, so I reached out to Linea Palmisano. Here was her take:

“I am proceeding with all the projects in my home community.  For the next couple of years, at least, all of this planned effort (traffic study, infrastructure improvements, safety enhancements for pedestrians) is overdue and will improve the area of West Calhoun and it’s public places.  In terms of recent roadblocks, I am going to let the Park Board answer for themselves.”

Palmisano was referring to an upcoming multi-modal traffic study commissioned by the city to look at the many traffic congestion and safety issues in this neighborhood (I plan to follow and report on this study when it occurs this year). I also reached out to Mayor Hodges’ office. She declined to offer a response through her spokeswoman.

 

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MPBR Commissioner Brad Bourn (Minneapolis Park Board)

One person who was willing to speak on-record about all of this was Minneapolis Park Board Commissioner Brad Bourn. In a phone interview, Bourn said Governor Dayton’s recent comments were “concerning,” but said he can’t speak to the future of state funding for this project, only that he’s concerned with what the Park Board is spending. He said he’s “opposed past resolutions” like this and reiterated his previous concerns over these expenditures. Responding to Chairman Haigh’s comments, Bourn said that this is a “high-stakes issue” and that there was some obvious “frustration in the letter.” He said he is concerned the MPRB could be putting public dollars at risk. Finally, I asked him if the MPRB is acting in the best interests of the parks and the people who use them. Bourn said he did not think so and that he had “valid concerns” over this and wondered “what is the next step?”

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MPBR President Liz Wielinski (Minneapolis Park Board)

I looked to find a counterpoint to these arguments and so reached out to Park Board President Liz Wielinski. Wielinski characterized the engineering study as finding out whether the tunnel option “is feasible and prudent.” She went on to say that “these are the two qualifications an alternative to the bridges would have to have in order for us to ask for a tunnel under the 4(f) provision of the Federal Transportation funding rules. The Met Council did just enough engineering to say that a tunnel would be feasible.” Wielinski also stated that “our engineers have concurred with the SPO (Southwest Project Office) that the tunnel is feasible and are now checking the SPO’s numbers and coming up with their estimates as well as many other factors that would say if the project is prudent.” She said the engineers will also be looking at “if this will create over long delays in the project.”

Regarding the MPRB’s decision to reach out to the FTA, Wielinski had this to say:

“Now it appears that with the Fresh Start program, where in the process 4(f) is considered has come into question and we are now asking to meet with the FTA before our window with 4(f) is missed.  Changing the process midway has led to some confusion.  I agree with Commissioner Bourn that we shouldn’t have to be spending MPRB funds on this, but since the SPO has not done their due diligence we are going to have to pick up the tab in order to do what I, and a majority on the board consider to be in the best interests of the park system.”

For those of you wondering, 4(f) refers to section 4 of the 1966 Department of Transportation Act, which according to the Federal Highway Administration “established the requirement for consideration of park and recreational lands, wildlife and waterfowl refuges, and historic sites in transportation project development.” This is also why the Park Board is using terms like “feasible” and “prudent” in its proposed engineering evaluations.

Regarding Gov. Dayton’s comments, Wielinski said he was simply speaking about present political realities, given the handover of power at the MN House. This line of thought was echoed in another Commissioner’s recent testimony at a meeting of the West Calhoun Neighborhood Council. Meg Forney, a former member of that council (here I’ll add my typical disclosure: I hold the office of Treasurer for the WCNC – a volunteer position) spoke at its January meeting about the project and the Park Board votes.

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MPBR Commissioner Meg Forney (Minneapolis Park Board)

Forney provided a similar view to that of President Wielinski; namely that these engineering studies are not going to delay the project but are born of a need for due diligence. She stated that the MPRB resolution that passed last November was to look at whether or not a tunnel was both “feasible and prudent” and authorized “up to $500,000” of funding. Forney also said that the MPRB asked the Met Council’s Southwest Project Office back in February of last year to look at the feasibility of the tunnel but had no response. She later claimed that “of the three colocation options offered last year, one was completely dismissed by the Met Council as too costly and the other two were deemed feasible by the SWLRT Project Office. Only for the bridge option have engineering and cost details been conducted.”

She also shared the view that Gov. Dayton’s comments had “nothing to do with this” but that he was speaking about state legislative funding needs (this is not how Scheck characterized Dayton’s stance in his MPR interview). Forney stated at the neighborhood meeting that the MPRB’s request to meet with the FTA is for informative purposes only. She said the Park Board is trying to figure out the timing since the governor put a lot of these negotiations on hold last year, noting that “the Governor’s intervention actually put the Municipal Consent out of order of the Supplemental DEIS (Draft Environmental Impact Statement), not our sign off timing.”

In a follow-up interview the Commissioner said “absolutely MPRB is acting in the best interests of the parks and people who use them. It is our obligation to protect and to preserve our parks for the people who use them.” She expressed worry over the expected 10% decrease in federal funding and how the legislature was going to deal with this. She also clarified the recent vote:

“The next step was the vote last Wednesday to further the research regarding alternatives that are less impactful on the Kenilworth Channel with real dollar amounts.  Voting to continue the research is so MPRB is in an informed position to respond to the Supplemental DEIS so we DON’T delay the process and, therefore, situated to sign off on 4(f).”

Forney also took issue with Commissioner Bourn’s assertion that he had opposed previous MPRB resolutions in this area. She referred me to a resolution passed on February 5th of last year that stated (in part):

RESOLVED, That the Board of Commissioners urge the Southwest Light Rail Transitway Project Office to conduct a detailed engineering feasibility study and cost comparison of tunneling under the Kenilworth Channel as part of the shallow tunnel option; and

RESOLVED, That the President of the Board and Secretary to the Board are authorized to take all necessary administrative actions to implement this resolution.

While this resolution wasn’t asking the MPRB to commission its own study, every Commissioner is on-record supporting this resolution of request to the Southwest Project Office. Forney also noted that Bourn did not actually vote “nay” on the November 19th resolution, but abstained from voting (reflected in the meeting minutes).

Bourn for his part contested this, stating that “after the February resolution that the board unanimously supported, the project office conducted approximately 800 hours of engineering work on tunnel analysis and comparisons. Although the answers may not have been what commissioners had wanted to hear, they did provide us with information we had asked for. While I and my colleagues were disappointed in the results of the analysis, it was done to my satisfaction and the Met Council complied with our request for an analysis.” Another resolution, voted on at the Park Board’s October 1st meeting, authorized the board to spend the $500K.

Bourn has already gone on record with me describing why he voted “no” on that resolution. Regarding his abstained vote on November 19th, Bourn said:

“This resolution was simply to choose Brierly Associates as the firm to do the work authorized on October 1st. I had already opposed the allocation of funds to these studies in October. To vote ‘no’ on awarding a contract to do work that the board had already authorized to do (over my documented objections) would have been unnecessarily obstructive. My record of opposing the ‘blank check’ mentality that some Commissioners seem to have embraced in regards to using scarce Park Board resources to stall SWLRT is very clear.”

The Southwest Light Rail project is one of the most important infrastructure tasks the state of Minnesota has ever conceived. Fitting in among the other two major lines (Blue and Green), it will serve to connect much of the southwest metro area with downtown and St. Paul. Given the many constraints that will be placed on our transportation infrastructure over the next decades, not to mention the urgent need to reduce car traffic in light of the epic amounts of global warming pollution created, this importance of this project cannot be overestimated. The SWLRT should be a boon to the many businesses along the line that need both customers and workers who may not be able to afford a car or don’t wish to use fossil fuels in their commute. The project also should serve as a leading transportation example to other major metropolitan areas. However, continued delay means that this project could fall short of the requirements the Feds have put on for funding it. This reporter hopes all of these various issues will be resolved in the coming year so this important venture can begin construction. The demands of a 21st century transportation system require it.

John Abraham-Watne About John Abraham-Watne
John Abraham-Watne is a published author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. He is the author of two novels published by North Star Press. John conducts freelance journalism on local government issues for the news/entertainment website MinnyApple. His work has also appeared in the Southwest Journal and the Hill & Lake Press.