Southwest LRT and the NIMBY Veto
As crunch time for the proposed Southwest light rail line looms, the controversy over where it should run and what should move out of its way keeps generating much more heat than light. And that's a shame for a project that promises significant benefits even for the localities that seem to be bent on derailing it if they don't get their way.
To update on recent developments:
- The expected source of at least one-third of the Southwest's $1.5 billion or so cost delivered an ultimatum that if the Metropolitan Council and cities along the route don't give final approvals by June 30 the money will be shifted to the northwest metro Bottineau LRT instead.
- The freight railroad at the center of a dispute between Minneapolis and St. Louis Park declared unacceptable an alternate reroute through the suburb, which folks there opposed anyway, while the Met Council doubled its previous cost estimate for the new tracks to more than $220 million.
- An 11th-hour proposal to tunnel the light rail under a Minneapolis lakes channel to mollify critics of bridging over it got skeptical responses from Mayor Betsy Hodges and an Anoka County representative on the Counties Transit Improvement Board, who noted a cost increase of up to $85 million and said: "Someone's got their hands on the CTIB's wallet."
Can't we all just get along?
Apparently not, as long as emotions run so high, even among people with no direct interest in the outcome. Just check out the vitriolic, sometimes ad hominem comment string engendered by my last major post on this issue.
Lost in all this angry back-and-forth is the Southwest's strong potential for boosting jobs and economic development, easing congestion on some of the region's busiest highways and providing a key link in a true 21st century transit system. It is projected to carry 30,000 riders a day by 2030, traffic that could spur commerce at many station nodes along the way.
In a Star Tribune commentary, Minneapolis Council Member Linea Palmisano and retired Metro Transit planner Aaron Isaacs argued for rerouting freight trains for the sake of pedestrian safety and development potential. It would remove freight trains from the vicinity of two stations in Minneapolis and two in St. Louis Park, they wrote.
"There has been much talk about 'sharing the burden' of SWLRT project between Minneapolis and St. Louis Park," they added, "but this is one area in which both cities would share an enormous benefit."
That's an insight that ought to have a more prominent place in the debate. Why it doesn't tracks back to our inherent fear of change far outweighing any accompanying positives, as well as an outsized contemporary concept of property rights. The latter phenomenon was artfully skewered in a Planetizen post by Touro Law Center assistant professor Michael Lewyn titled "The Theory Behind NIMBYism."
Lewyn noted "a widespread cultural assumption that we have a property right to veto whatever happens within a few blocks of our homes" stemming "from the perfectly reasonable idea that people are affected by 'externalities' arising from how others used nearby property."
That has led to something far beyond Not In My Back Yard, he says. It's more like BANANA -- Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. For example, Lewyn said, Denver residents opposed proposed rezoning that would allow taller buildings up to five stories, in effect asserting their own property rights over those of the owners of the parcels to be built on.
"Because NIMBY activists have so much power over development ... nearly anything could be interpreted as an externality," Lewyn added. "If a project is more affordable than the rest of the neighborhood ... it could lower property values or, worse still, bring in poorer people ... If the project is more expensive ... it could lead to something called 'gentrification.' Even if the project is neither more nor less affordable ... neighbors can always find an aesthetic ground to object."
Among the pernicious results are higher city housing prices when denser development is blocked and increased sprawl to distant farmland with fewer NIMBY interests, regardless of steeper infrastructure and environmental costs.
While Lewyn focuses on vertical development rather than transportation's horizontal kind, it can apply to the latter as well. Opposition to new trains nearby, freight or passenger, is holding up the Southwest. But, as is often the case with Lewyn's kind of radical analysis, he falls short when it comes to a remedy.
"It seems to me that the NIMBY veto has outlived its usefulness, and that neighbors' 'right' to veto nearby development has been so widely abused that it should be eliminated," he concluded. "The more difficult question (for me) is: what procedural mechanisms do we create to eliminate this veto?"
That's the question for us, too. We may not need to eliminate the NIMBY veto to achieve progress, but an end to light-rail gridlock may rely on scaling back its power.