OPINION | Peace in the Valley and transit equity for all

When compromises are reached at the State Capitol, legislators typically pronounce "Peace in the Valley." That great old gospel tune popularized by Elvis Presley is actually about death rather than reconciliation, but the political sentiment is clear.

This week warring sides in disputes over the proposed Southwest light rail Green Line extension tentatively settled their differences, marking what Metropolitan Council chair Susan Haigh called "a path forward" toward a 21st century transit system for the Twin Cities.

The hostilities had been fomented from opposite ends of the economic ladder -- with much more public attention paid to the concerns of the wealthy -- but those of the disadvantaged were no less valid. Addressing the former without the latter would have been unseemly, to say the least.

In bulletins sent five minutes apart Tuesday morning, however, the Met Council announced an agreement with the City of Minneapolis on routing the LRT through the city's leafy lakes district and then issued a regional transit equity plan draft to improve bus service and shelters in low-income minority neighborhoods. The specifics:

  • The Southwest LRT will tunnel under freight railroad tracks south of the Cedar Lake-Lake of the Isles water channel, but remain above ground north of it. With elimination of the planned northern tunnel, an LRT station will be restored at 21st Street, allowing more bus connections to the light rail.
  • At the city's request, the project will include more noise mitigation, landscape restoration and pedestrian access improvements along the lakes-area Kenilworth corridor. The net fiscal effect of all the changes is a $30 million reduction in the project's budget, to $1.65 billion.
  • Meanwhile, in another concession to Kenilworth residents' worries, the parties agreed to work to ensure continued public ownership of the corridor's freight tracks by the Hennepin County Railroad Authority. When the authority bought the railroad land decades ago, it planned eventually to move the tracks to St. Louis Park to make way for urban transit. But SLP blocked that option, leading to controversy and costly tunneling plans. Public ownership, officials believe, will help prevent the freight trains from increasing in frequency or carrying more hazardous cargo through the corridor.
  • On transit equity, the Met Council pledged over the next 15 years to strengthen LRT and arterial bus rapid transit services to "racially concentrated areas of poverty and job centers throughout the region."
  • In addition, by the end of next year, 150 bus stops "focused on areas of racially concentrated poverty" will get bus shelters for the first time or replacement of old ones. Eric Roper reported in the Star Tribune on Monday that Metro Transit's system of bus shelters is poorly aligned with passenger volumes.

The equity plan came in response to protests raised by the People's Transit Coalition, which was spearheaded in north Minneapolis by Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison.

In a news release, Haigh thanked Ellison and the coalition "for highlighting the need for transit equity around Southwest LRT." The release also noted that nearly 40 percent of the council's Metro Transit riders board in disadvantaged minority areas, and said a 2011 study showed that buses serving minority communities were slightly newer than the system average. New-generation buses emit 90 percent less pollution and are 85 percent more reliable than older models from the late 1990s, the release added.

Both the LRT agreement and the transit equity plan face a gauntlet of public hearings and official approvals before they are finalized over the coming months. But each one followed negotiations with aggrieved parties -- mediated by a retired judge in the former case -- and should enjoy relatively clear sailing. One remaining obstacle for the LRT plan could be a lawsuit from residents nearby and north of the water channel.

Let's hope it doesn't come to that. As Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, who had previously withheld support for the LRT route, said: "Given the constraints we face, this is the most responsible way to get the project built. I expect that and understand why residents along the Kenilworth corridor will be disappointed, but the greater good demands that we seek a path for Southwest LRT to move forward."

City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden added: "Southwest Light Rail is a critical part of our regional transit system that connects people to economic opportunity [and serves as] a transit spine from which we can maximize access and connections for residents by bus, car, bicycle, walking and streetcar."

And that's for everybody, rich and poor, living near the light rail or not. So it's good that input was heeded from a similarly wide spectrum of society on the way to this hoped-for Peace in the Valley.

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Conrad deFiebre's picture
Conrad deFiebre

Conrad deFiebre is a Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020.