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Southwest Light Rail open house in St. Louis Park

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A Southwest Light Rail open house event sponsored by the Metropolitan Council at the St. Louis Park Recreational Center January 9, 2014. Over two-hundred souls packed the meeting room at the center to give their feedback to the Met Council and its consultants who are studying alternative routes to the SWLRT and also its impact on the Kenilworth Corridor. Present at the meeting were several state legislators, including State Senators Scott Dibble, State Representatives Ryan Winkler, Frank Hornstein and Steve Simon, and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.

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While there were many elected representatives present at this event it was the unelected people on the Met Council who came in for the biggest heat. The evening began with a simple question: What should be done different this time? In a letter written by Met Council Chair Susan Haigh presented at this meeting she stated:

“We all wish we could roll back the clock 20 years and bring additional clarity to the agreements made around this project. The lack of clarity left some of you feeling that promises were made and broken, while others feel no promises were made beyond what has already been done. Regardless of which side of the issue you find yourself on, this has undoubtedly been a frustrating experience.”

Audience members were given a chance to address the Met Council and those in the room for about a minute apiece, and opinions varied from angry to flat-out opposed, with a few supporters speaking up here and there. The first person to speak called for a study of the freight reroute to be done as specific as the Met Council’s current review of the Kenilworth corridor. The next person called for another hard look at the deep bore tunnel option, which would create a massive tunnel underneath the corridor rather than have the track sit at-grade. The speaker said it would “only” cost around $150 million.

Safety was another important topic that was mentioned. One speaker noted the “450 foot difference” between freight rail berms and tracks in St. Louis Park. Another referenced the recent train derailments in North Dakota and worried the same might happen in the much more populated area of St. Louis Park. This same speaker disparaged the “political pandering” over this project and called for the disbanding of the Met Council, which received applause from parts of the room.

Tom Miller, head of the activist group Safety in the Park, said he was not on board with the studies the Met Council are performing on the Kenilworth corridor, and said the two cities “can’t have it both ways” on the reroute of freight or light rail track. Stuart Chazin, head of the Chazin Group, rose to say the “price of the deep tunnel is a guess” but also stressed that the decisions surrounding this project are not political in nature.

Another theme present throughout the comments was that of a one-way conversation. Multiple speakers stood up and angrily stated their belief that the Met Council was not listening to them. One speaker put it bluntly to the Met Council: “Who are you listening to?” One speaker said she had contacted Governor Mark Dayton’s office multiple times had had received no response. Another topic raised by several people was the need to think of actual transit users when planning this light rail project. Several people in attendance at the event took the bus there and spoke of the fact that the bus stop in front of the rec center wasn’t cleared.

The overall tenor of the group was decidedly negative (your Examiner had to duck out of the meeting early and therefore did not get to hear every speaker), with many people either outright against this project or deeply mistrustful of the Metropolitan Council to get it done properly. Construction for the SWLRT is still set to begin next year, but if this public meeting was any indication the Met Council, Hennepin County, and the cities of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park have a long way to go to create concurrence. This is a shame as the Southwest Light Rail is an exceedingly important project for this area of the metro and will go a long way toward economic development and the elimination of automobile transportation. The Met Council has yet to release the findings of its current studies. Stay tuned to the Examiner for more coverage of this massive infrastructure project and its public perceptions.

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