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City of Minneapolis and Met Council announce SWLRT mediated agreement

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The Southwest Light Rail project, which will run light rail tracks all the way from downtown Minneapolis to the suburb areas of Eden Prairie, is the costliest and possibly most contentious public transportation project in the last fifty years of Minnesota history. The current plan has been in the works for several years now and has undergone many revisions. The environmental impact of the line has been studied thoroughly and there have been many trade-offs among the various parties for different parts of the line. By far the most troublesome aspect of the plan thus far was the decision by Minneapolis to attempt to move the freight rail line out of the Kenilworth corridor in order to prevent “co-location” of that line with the light rail. This plan rankled many in the town of St. Louis Park who thought that this decision was going against their interest. A citizens group, Safety in the Park, was formed to agitate against any proposed co-location. Their arguments mainly circled around safety, as the proposed moving of the freight rail would cut into various parts of their community (including traveling near a high school).

The municipal consent process mandated by law forces the Metropolitan Council, one of the lead government agencies behind this massive project, to obtain the go-ahead from the various cities and communities along the proposed route. So far every community, from Eden Prairie to Hopkins to Edina to St. Louis Park, had given their ok to the project, given that the current proposal kept co-location in the plan and also would run the light rail through shallow tunnels underneath the narrow strip of land between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. This unfortunately contrasted dramatically with Minneapolis’ proposal to move the freight line, which looked to be dead on arrival once the Met Council decided against it. However, the Council still needed the city to come onboard, and so therefore entered into a mediation process in June of this year.

This is where things sat, with little or no comment from either Mayor Betsy Hodges’ office or Council Member Palmisano’s, until July 9th when both government entities publicly announced their decision and several memorandums of understanding (MOU). Some major changes to the project included the removal of the north shallow tunnel in the Kenilworth corridor, which was in exchange with the city for the addition of a light rail station at 21st Street in Minneapolis. Another part of the agreement called for the federal money saved from the removal of that tunnel to be used by the city to create improvements in pedestrian and bicycle access to all the stations on the line. According to the announcement by the Mayor’s office:

“If approved by both sides, the Met Council’s revised budget for Southwest light rail will be reduced by $30 million, from $1.683 billion to $1.653 billion, as a result of these changes to the preliminary design of the project.”

Another part of the agreement has to do with the freight rail in the corridor. The agreement requires the Met Council, city of Minneapolis, and Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority (HCRRA) to work together “to ensure that the Kenilworth freight corridor remains in public ownership, which the parties agree will decrease the chances that freight trains will increase in frequency or carry more dangerous cargo through the corridor.” This was considered a compromise intended to mollify some Minneapolis critics of the freight rail line’s inclusion in the current plan.

Since the SWLRT plan has changed since the mediation process, the Met Council once again needs to secure municipal consent and agreement with the city of Minneapolis. While on board with the current negotiated agreement, Mayor Hodges made clear in her statement that this was indeed a painful compromise intended to make sure the project moved forward:

“The City of Minneapolis has always strongly supported the vision for Southwest LRT. Our support now comes at a high cost – an unexpected and unwelcome cost – because freight was supposed to be removed. Governor Dayton is correct: the Kenilworth Corridor will not be the same. It could have been far worse, however, if not for the protections secured in this tentative agreement. With freight staying in the corridor, and given the constraints we face, this is the most responsible way to get the project built.”

Your Examiner wanted to dive in a little deeper into both MOUs in order to provide a bit more information about these decisions. He spoke with two key players in all of this, Minneapolis City Council Member Palmisano and Met Council member Adam Duinick.

The first agreement, concerning the redesign of part of the project, states that removing the north tunnel and adding the 21st Street station “will result in a net savings of approximately $60 million for the Project.” The plan outlines the use of this money: half will go toward reducing the overall project budget, while the other $30 million will go toward station design in Minneapolis. At a public meeting in Minneapolis held after the decision was released, Peter Wagenius, policy aide to Mayor Hodges, stated that this money is actually not “new” to Minneapolis but administered by the Federal Transit Administration (Wagenius did not respond to an interview request from your Examiner). Mr. Duinick said that he thinks the cost savings were a big victory for the Met Council. He also stated that he thinks improved bike and pedestrian access should come out of this, but that city staff must put together a cost estimate. The agreement makes clear that all of these changes must be accepted by the Federal Transit Administration.

Regarding the proposed 21st St station, the agreement stipulates that “the Station will include pedestrian connections to Cedar Lake. Light rail trains will operate at-grade north of the channel.” Concerning the north tunnel that was given up in exchange, Mr. Duinick said that he was satisfied with the decision (it was “for the good of the region”) but worried that it could affect future transit decisions.

Another important part of this agreement spells out that if freight rail does indeed exist next to the light rail in the Kenilworth corridor (which appears to be the most likely scenario at this juncture - Palmisano stated that co-location was not going to be re-litigated in this mediation process) that “the Corridor shall be designed to a park-like level of amenity, not only restoring, but improving pre-existing conditions.” It also states that “the Council will select a landscape architect with the City and MPRB serving on the evaluation panel. The City, MPRB and representatives of the affected neighborhoods will participate with the Council in a collaborative design process for the Corridor.” Mr. Duinick stated that the “construction process will be challenging” but that the goal be keeping this area as it appears today.

The agreement calls for adding freight guard rails at various locations, including near the West Lake station, north of the Kenilworth corridor, and 21st Street. It spells out station area improvements for the Royalston, Van White, Penn, and West Lake stations. Since your Examiner considers the area west of Lake Calhoun to be his major coverage area, he wanted to list the improvements there for this article:

“Build enhanced pedestrian connections along West Lake Street between Drew Ave S and 32nd St.

Realign Abbott Ave and Chowen Ave to accommodate development on the HCRRA property as shown the Transitional Station Area Action Plan (TSAAP) and build “Mid-Town Station” ready.

Build enhanced pedestrian connections along Chowen and Abbott Aves and along the newly realigned street segment.

Conduct an areawide traffic study with partner agencies to assess non-motorized needs and opportunities.”

Asked about some of these negotiated improvements, CM Palmisano said that this created a “better starting place” for the West Lake station, but that some “certainty” was still needed for the overall station project here.

Finally, the agreement describes various other important additions, including improving pedestrian and bicycle access around stations, better lighting, and “high quality aesthetic design of all fence and railings throughout the corridor.”

The second MOU concerns who owns the land in the Kenilworth corridor. The first part of the negotiated agreement states that all parties involved must strive to keep this land under public ownership. It calls on the Met Council to “exert whatever influence it has” to make sure no additional freight trains are run through this area. CM Palmisano stated that a goal here was to ensure there was no more freight than necessary through the corridor. Mr. Duinick stated that one goal of the negotiations was to make it “difficult for the railroad to increase capacity” or to be “bought or sold.” At the public hearing, Mr. Wagenius also made clear that the “existing trackage rights agreement” meant that Twin Cities and Western Railroad “prevents them from adding other carriers” to this rail line.

The agreement also states that “remnant” lands here (considered not used for either freight or light rail) should be turned over to the Minneapolis Park Board in order to create further parkland around the project.

So what are the next steps for this all-important transit project in the metro area? First will be an upcoming public hearing with the Met Council and HCRRA on August 13th. There will be an open house for the public before this meeting. There will also be a new deadline for municipal consent, upon which the Minneapolis City Council will vote August 29th, 2014. Hennepin County will also hold a vote on the plan on August 19th.

There is still a long way to go before this project finally gets the go-ahead to begin construction. But this recent mediation process, while requiring tough concessions from both sides, seems to have paved the way for the engineering portion of this project to get underway in the next year (according to current projections by the Met Council).

For more information from the Met Council, check out the project page here. The joint announcement and MOU documents can be found here at the city’s website.

Stay tuned to your Examiner for more updates on this all-important transit project in the metro area.

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