Southwest LRT: The New/Old Plan

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Southwest LRT proponents are meeting to reduce a $341 million “funding gap” to curb the $2 billion estimated cost of the most expensive public works project ever proposed in Minnesota. The rush is on. Deadline for completing a money package for federal congressional approval for this cycle of funding is August 3.

NO NEW CONSENT PROCESS FOR MINNEAPOLIS: The old plan is the new plan minus one suburban station, deferring another and slashing frills like landscaping, public art and reducing suburban park-and-rides.

To avoid triggering another contentious consent process in Minneapolis the under-populated stations at 21st Street and Penn Avenue must remain. The Penn stop is a particularly exotic design, a walkway thrust above and over the freight rail and an elevator (or 90 steps) down into the former Cedar Lake wetland. It would be a setup for trapping riders in off hours.

Minneapolis officials approved SWLRT after reputed threats–a park board funding cut, and promises to remove freight rail beside the LRT path or “co-location.” Newly elected mayor Betsy Hodges campaigned against co-location then voted for it. SWLRT is splitting this one-party town into constant growth vs. quality of life camps.

Since Hennepin County is already developed the only available land is parkland and wetland. Honest examination of the wet soils along the proposed SWLRT route ballooned the cost and brought cries of “you knew about the soil problems long ago” from environmentalists.

Parks don’t vote. Eliminating wetlands, nature’s water cleansing mechanism, is slow death to clean lakes and creeks.

THE TUNNEL: SWLRT was predicated on removal of heavy rail out of Minneapolis because there is not enough room for industrial rail and light rail and the Kenilworth park bike trail. Heavy rail remains and a “shallow” tunnel was added with the bike trail piggy-backed on top.

A half-mile tunnel would be inserted (after tree removal) between Cedar, Lake of the Isles and Calhoun. Solid steel walls would be sunken 55-feet down for the length of the tunnel to anchor the 35-foot wide structure. Otherwise it would float up or down with fluctuating underground water levels.

According to the Burns and McDonnell Engineering Company water study for the Metropolitan Council as much as 24,000 gallons per day from inside and around the tunnel would be pumped out. Less groundwater flow into and out of the lakes would allow more contaminants and particulate matter to fill in and remain in our public waters.

We are already warned not to swim in city lakes for three days after a rain event. Is SWLRT worth the Chain of Lakes?

EQUITY: The “equity” argument for the SWLRT was a brilliant public relations maneuver to silence guilt-prone white people. Equity is P.C. The pitch was that underserved black Northsiders would get transportation to jobs in the southwest suburbs. Like the promise to move heavy freight with dangerous ethanol traffic out of the urban zone, the equity promise lapsed.

The current SWLRT plan is to bus Northsiders south, then east to the proposed Royalston station near Olson Memorial Highway at 7th Street. That stop is two and a half blocks from the baseball stadium stop.

Transit riders of color spend longer commute times than do white transit riders according to a recent report, “It’s About Time: The Transit Time Penalty and Its Racial Implications.” Latino transit riders actually spend more commute time than black riders. Other transit studies report that each transfer loses up to 50-percent of ridership.

Meanwhile the densely populated Uptown area was not considered for an LRT stop. Instead, a mile and a half walk from Lake and Hennepin in an upscale residential area with very little parking, the 21st Street Station (at Thomas) is planned. Also called “Hidden Beach,” the Cedar Lake party site is the bane of neighbors, cops and the Park Board.

If SWLRT is not servicing black Northside or white Uptown populations who is the system working for? Build it and they will come. Developers–trickle down economic theory. Growth. Increase the tax base. Why not put transit where the people are?

PROXY APOLOGY: Peter Wagenius, Senior Policy Aide to Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges apologized at the “final” Southwest LRT public hearing June 18.

He focused on reneged promises by the (appointed) Metropolitan Council and (elected) Hennepin County Commission. Ridership estimates for Minneapolitans have been reduced by 22-percent for the proposed 212 weekday LRT trains. Planners never produced any blast zone information from dangerous railroad cargo.

Wagenius testified: “Thank you Mr. Chair [Adam Duininck, Metropolitan Council chair] and thank you Met Council members for your willingness to hold this [legally required public] hearing.

“I work for Mayor Hodges and she would like to extend her thanks to everybody here–the citizens present for their remarkable politeness and thoughtful comments in the face of this project’s transformation from what it was promised to be, into a totally different project that it is today.

“I will share this experience with Mayor Hodges as a refreshing tonic compared to the collective amnesia which permeates the conversation that takes place at the Corridor Management Committee. At the CMC they were saying it is time, now, for the burdens of this cost cutting to be shared equitably among the five cities along the line, as if the burdens of this project have been shared equitably up to this point.

“At those meetings there was no recognition whatsoever that the burden of freight fell 100-percent on one city.

“At those meetings there was no recognition that this project was planned to be and promised to be totally different than it is today with freight relocated from the corridor. This is beyond dispute. Whether or not St. Louis Park acknowledges their promise, the fact that Hennepin County promised to reroute the freight is not disputed.

“Ms. [Jeanette] Colby and Mr. [George] Puzak are absolutely right about the origin, the root causes of all these challenges. Southwest LRT has been a project to avoid accountability. Why did the federal government have to force the project to incorporate [the] freight issue into the project’s scope and budget? Did anyone ever think there was going to be a solution to the freight problem which was free?–which did not cost money?

“How much more has it cost the project and the residents of Minneapolis because the freight issue wasn’t dealt with five, 10, 15, 17 years ago. If neither of the government agencies [Metropolitan Council and Hennepin County Commission] responsible for this situation is willing to tell the community, let the City of Minneapolis do it.

“You are right to be angry and frustrated. You are right. Your politeness in the face of this is entirely amazing. This is the opposite of what you were told this project was going to be. So if no one else can say it–I’m sorry.” (applause)

Wagenius’ testimony was transcribed by the author from Robert Carney Jr.’s meeting audiotape which can be seen and heard here.

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