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MN2020 - Time to Call in the Fixers for Southwest LRT
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Time to Call in the Fixers for Southwest LRT

September 05, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

An associate of mine with a rich background in politics says his favorite characters in the movie "Lincoln" are the "fixers." This motley band of bagmen procured, with federal appointments, outright bribery and Honest Abe's acquiescence, enough votes in Congress to send a proposed constitutional amendment outlawing slavery to the state legislatures in the waning days of the Civil War. It was enacted as the 13th Amendment a year later.

As is often said about the making of both laws and sausages, we may not want to see the process, however tasty the final product may be. In fact, that's why these processes usually are well hidden from view.

And it's along these lines that I'm wondering what kind of deals, shady or not, are being sought as the Metropolitan Council repeatedly delays final decisions on routing the Southwest light rail line through a tony part of Minneapolis to reach distant Eden Prairie.

Lord knows plenty of agreements already have been forged along the way to this critical point. Minneapolis pledged to allow the LRT through the leafy Kenilworth corridor in exchange for a promise that freight trains now running there would be relocated. Some residents, however, don't like that compromise because it would send many more trains past their homes.

Meanwhile, St. Louis Park, the Twin Cities' first commuter railroad suburb dating to the late 19th century, signaled willingness in writing years ago to accept the rerouted freight trains as part of an effort to secure funding to clean up a severely polluted industrial site that threatened groundwater and residents' health. Promises, promises.

"Hennepin County kept its end of the bargain and cleaned up the site," Mark Andrew, then chairman of county board and now a candidate for mayor of Minneapolis, wrote in a Star Tribune op-ed. "Today, that agreement languishes."

That was then, this is now, St. Louis Park Mayor Jeff Jacobs shot back in a Strib rebuttal. Plus, he said, the city made no binding promises. "The grant agreement between the city and the county does not in any way indicate that in return for the grant funding the city was agreeing to the rail interconnect," he wrote. "We have never consented or agreed to a freight-rail reroute in St. Louis Park."

Those are careful words, and Andrew stopped short of accusing the suburb of bad faith. It's worth noting that both the mayor and the mayoral hopeful speak for angry, fearful constituencies resistant to change in their backyards.

But it's also worth noting that the stakes in the Southwest LRT struggle extend far beyond those narrow interests, and that its realization depends on a vastly broader set of sign-offs, agreements and compromises. It's a virtual certainty that there's no magic bullet solution -- such as Marlys Harris's call in MinnPost for a streetcar-style reroute down commercial streets or a last-ditch second opinion on rerouting freight trains -- that wouldn't spark a host of vexing new dilemmas.

There are more than enough of them already in the current standoff: the loss of dozens of homes and businesses to freight rail in SLP and hundreds of trees in Kenilworth if tunnels are dug to hide the light rail, safety and efficiency of proposed freight tracks that the railroad and federal authorities have a say in, effects of tunneling on Minneapolis waters that a soil and water board controls, the steep cost of either freight relocation or LRT tunneling that would drain funds from future transit initiatives in other parts of the metro.

We've settled disputes like this in the past, although sometimes only after lawsuits were filed (see the Central Corridor LRT's struggles with the University of Minnesota, Minnesota Public Radio and Summit-University residents and businesses). In each case, deals were made to mollify the resistance. In this instance, time may be running short to hang onto a federal promise of 50 percent funding for the Southwest's costs of well over $1 billion.

I have no special insight into whether new agreements are in the offing out of the sight of most of us. But my "Spidey senses," to use my old State Capitol press room neighbor Eric Eskola's phrase, tell me something's afoot. There's the Met Council's foot-dragging. There's Council Chair Susan Haigh's suggestion to use consensus rather than a roll call in the final vote, now pushed back again to next month. And there's the failure of a key official in the process, someone I've known for decades, to call me back in the nearly two weeks since I first asked for an interview.

Whatever the situation, the Southwest LRT is too important for the Twin Cities' economic development, employment access and overall 21st century transportation system to let it fall through the cracks of parochial concerns. If needs be, let's bring on the fixers.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.

18 Comments:

  • Jim Mork says:

    September 6, 2013 at 9:58 am

    Fixers stuck us with the Vikings stadium.  Mark Andrews is the visible representative of fixers. His campaign coffers depend upon them.  I think maybe the Metropolitan Council should humble itself and look at successful metropolitan systems elsewhere. Portland Oregon didn’t shove its subsequent light rail lines through some upscale neighborhood. The Clackamas and Airport like run on the SAME TRACK as the Blue Line that was built 20 years ago.  But Minneapolis has itself convinced “we can do it better”.  Instead they make themselves look like utter fools.  Mark Andrew is involved in a number of bad choices, starting with the incinerator.  He has the biggest ego in local politics.  Stand clear of him if you want a rational outcome.

  • Patrick Wells says:

    September 9, 2013 at 10:09 am

    The proposed freight reroute through St. Louis Park would put a 20 ft rail berm close to schools and through neigborhoods which had never anticipated heavy rail traffic.  Freight traffic would increase from about 20 freight cars a day at 5 mi/hr to 300 cars a day at 25 mi/hr.  The reroute solution is unsafe for the schools and for the neighborhood.  The reroute is opposed by the area legislators, by the SLP City Council, and by the SLP School Board. 

    In additon to the reroute being unsafe, I believe the SLP Mayor when he states that there was never an agreement to reroute.

    • Jim Mork says:

      September 9, 2013 at 11:52 am

      I think Mark Andrew fabricated that. I’m pretty sure that is Mark Andrew’s politics. A reason I don’t want him to succeed Rybak.

  • Tom Burke says:

    September 9, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    NIMBY is afoot.  The “Lakes” contingent is being forced to leave their rarified air to impact the decision. Where were they when I-94 split Frogtown and I-35 tore apart south Minneapolis?  Oh, that’s right they demanded a tunnel under Lowry Hill and a freeway jog to avoid the art institute.

    The upper classes need to pull up their big boy and big girl pants and help get the big picture—that is what’s greater good—and get this project back on track. 

    I am a tree hugging cyclist who does see the big picture.

    • Patrick Wells says:

      September 9, 2013 at 12:52 pm

      In St. Louis Park, the most important issue is the physical safety of the schools and of the children.  The reroute proposal would put many school children at risk. 

      In addition to the safety issue, the reroute proposal includes a 20 foot berm which would split St. Louis Park and destroy peaceful neighborhoods. 

      Any greater good from the reroute project, at this point, is just speculation.  The immediate impact of the reroute proposal is not speculative.  The immediate effect reroute proposal would be both unsafe and destructive.

    • lmmoran says:

      September 9, 2013 at 2:46 pm

      NIMBY is not “afoot.” I’m not sure who “the Lakes contingent” is but for the last 4+ years (since the LPA was decided upon) both the CINDA and Kenwood neighborhood associations have tried to mitigate the effect of 220+ trains bisecting their neighborhoods.  We were (and are) not happy with the decision to run LRT through an area of low density so that suburban commuters can get downtown faster.  But once the decision was made we worked with the county to try and reduce noise and danger within the corridor.  Since it is becoming more obvious that the Met Council wants to run freight and LRT in the same corridor people are understandably upset. If you know the corridor, and what the railroad has said in the past regarding what they need for room to run with LRT, you know that the only way they fit together is by taking houses or burying LRT (I’m not even talking about trails at this point). The city agreed to the LPA with the understanding the freight rail would go. Now we are being asked (?!) to take the freight because the county can’t convince anyone else to take it. Neither MPLS or SLP should be forced to bail out the county’s alignment decison.

    • Courtney CK says:

      September 10, 2013 at 4:00 pm

      cop-out to blame the “upper class.”  Come walk the Kenilworth Trail and notice that of the nearly one million users, many of them are coming from the suburbs and other neighborhoods. This is already a regional transit corridor- FOR BIKES! I encourage you to look at who is projected to use the SWLRT, 75% will be commuting into Mpls from the suburbs, particularly Eden Prairie. Is this really for the non “upper class”. Certainly is not stopping in neighborhoods that would benefit from public transit, just skirting communities with residents who are transit dependent.

    • Michael McCoy says:

      September 10, 2013 at 4:39 pm

      Crumbling infrastructure (falling bridges, sending kids home from school for lack of air conditioning)...the estimated $1.6 B for this idiotic ‘train through the trees’ could be used better elsewhere. The prospective commuter train ridership are already served by an impressive transit system including direct transport from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis. See for example, http://www.swtransit.org/sites/default/files/routes/EP_Express.pdf
      The best use of scarce resources for the best good of the population, in my opinion, is the bigger picture.

    • Jim Mork says:

      September 10, 2013 at 5:42 pm

      How do the St Louis Park government and residents fit in a “Lakes Contingent”?  I think this is old fashioned labeling (compare http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labeling). “Labelling is often equivalent to pigeonholing or the use of stereotypes and can suffer from the same problems as these activities.”.  Tree-hugging cyclist has the same validity.  Face it, the Metro Council did not attempt to get actual voter buyin. It was a cozy “fixer” deal that has come unraveled.  Now it seems people want to give the region the bum’s rush on the grounds “we can’t afford to take the time”. Oh, yes we can.  A multibillion dollar tab always allows a deliberate decision.  Only those who see it as no skin off them see deliberation as frustrating.  Honestly, this issue is NOT going to be what determines the progress of the region. If that were so, every city with economic ambitions would be spending billions on rail transit. Frankly, this was the exact same argument used to push the two stadiums.  Can’t stop people from trying what worked for them before.

  • Jeff Walsh says:

    September 9, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    Three solutions 1) elevate the bike path in the bottleneck, costs a fraction of building new track in SLP on a 20 foot high berm where track doesn’t even currently exist 2) move the bike path 3) don’t build it and save the tax payers the capital costs plus the inevitable subsidizing of the operating costs.  Finally, an unelected body not accountable to the electorate should never have this kind of decision-making authority.  The Met Coucil should be abolished in its current form.

  • Margaret Rog says:

    September 9, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    It bothers me a lot that a decision of such consequence is going to be made in haste because of the threat of losing federal funding. This does not seem like the proper way to approach a decision of such magnitude. I appreciate the reference to the Rondo neighborhood, such a misguided decision, we can never bring that place or way of life back.

    This decision should not be made quickly, as it has permanent consequences. Federal money, on the other hand, comes and goes.

  • JoAnn S says:

    September 9, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Hennepin County did not clean up the polluted site. The EPA cleaned it up 10 year prior. Where Hennepin County came in was for consultants to see if the land was usable. This premlinary step still did not say St Louis Park would accept grant money (the fund provides grants to those who apply for them) in exchange for the reroute. The document states St Louis Park wanted to redevelop the land while Hennepin County was drooling over a reroute. The millions mentioned may have been spent by the EPA but Hennepin County money was in the thousands and did squat to clean it up.
    SLP currently shares the current train tracks in question - the trains run East and West, and in fact the same biking trail run along side the tracks. The problem with the reroute, it would take those trains that are already running East and West, in and out of Minneapolis, and run the North and South on a new railroad.
    The new railroad would run from about Hwy 7 & Louisiana along a new half mile inclining and curving ramp up to about Hwy 7 & Lake to meet the new railroad that would be on a 20 foot high earthen berm 66 feet wide through SLP where there are already homes, businesses and schools.
    It is the most detrimental thing to happen to SLP.  It is only Hennepin County that has been trying to reroute this through SLP at any cost even though the reroute is shown to be fail time and again. Even to this day, they will not state how many homes and business would be demolished for the new railway let alone disclose the true costs. They say some of this new railway shouldn’t be included with the light rail costs thus a lot is being hidden and intentionally.
    This reroute is not about a few more trains and it’s not just plopping those few more trains on the north / south tracks. It is about moving them and building an whole new railway up the city in new places, bulldozing anything in it’s path. It is being planned as if SLP is a blank slate.  The ramifications of having this wall through the city within touching distance from school playgrounds and homes, is never told so we have to beg to be heard. In some of the proposals, it is mentioned there are partial acquisitions, whatever that means, but a couple times they said this driveway was in the way. Not sure if they mean to build this 20 foot wall through someone’s garage and make them live in a home with that in their back yard not next to their back yard like many. The reroute is terrible to begin with but not all is told. Hennepin County still to this day tells everyone the reroute should happen while telling everyone SLP is crying over a few more trains. Hardly the truth. The reroute would absolutely devastate the city and should not happen and was never agreed to.
    There are many options to co-locate freight and light rail but they are “off the table”. They would rather have elevated freight travel through school grounds and established neighborhoods which makes no sense at all. The co-location includes St. Louis Park since we would keep the freight on the current freight corridor we share with Minneapolis already - we just don’t want that freight turned off those tracks and moved up through the city on a new elevated berm that would destroy that whole side of the city from Hwy 7 to Hwy 55. The new railway would also cover all the streets to boot. A crossing would be another story needing to elevate the street and taking more homes along those blocks. The reroute is just a terrible idea so yeah, SLP protests it understandably and always has. Hennepin County new the reroute was a fail since day one, long before the LPA was chosen, but chose it any way. Now everyone has to pay and pay and pay for their poor planning and that includes Mpls AND St Louis Park, though the reroute (relocation) is by far the worst thing ever considered.

  • Jackson R says:

    September 10, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    According to the DEIS, 25% of daily SWLRT ridership is projected to be reverse commute riders from Mpls. At a cost of at least $1.5 billion, SWLRT is primarily suburban infrastructure and primarily provides employment access to southwestern suburban riders.

    The current alignment reflects and perpetuates the social and economic inequalities of the 20th century. A true 21st century transportation system would be equitable to urban and suburban residents in its economic benefits. SWLRT as currently planned is not.

    • JudeCivic says:

      September 11, 2013 at 10:46 am

      Thank you Jackson R. The DEIS was supposed to inform the design of SWLRT. The DEIS is utterly damning of this SWLRT route. It predicted low ridership and an environmental NEGATIVE through 2050 (due to cars idling at the crossings and the amount of coal that will be needed to run it), and a very modest positive impact after that—due to better fuel emission standards for cars. And Jackson’s point about social justice is right on:  The communities that need transit are not served by this line. Uptown is burgeoning, yet the SWLRT line stops just short of Uptown.

  • SBrenner says:

    September 11, 2013 at 9:32 am

    I doubt the veracity of the design and cost off the freight reroute design as it currently stands! I believe TC&W in cahoots with SLP has padded the design and therefore the costs of the SLP reroute! If an honest apples to apples cost comparison is done, where TC&W had to accept the same safety, speed guidelines and lentgh of trains as currently exists through the Kennilworth Corridor, than the freight reroute would be much cheaper than the Kennilworth allignment. Shame on TC&W for asking for the Cadillac of freight redesigns instead of the the Buick. The current design reroute through SLP has nothing to do with increased safety, it has everything to do with TC&W improving its business model at taxpayer expense.

    • RJPauls says:

      September 12, 2013 at 9:39 am

      S Brenner.  I’ve been working close to this for years.  The TCW is not asking for anything more than what they currently have.  Where are you getting this information?  Have you met the TCW president?  He has been at just about every public open house. Did you read their comments in the DEIS?  Did you read the 40 plus comments of their customers in the DEIS?  Do you really thing TCW and 40 of their customers are in “cahoots” with SLP?  That’s ridiculous. They are not trying to improve their business.  They are just asking for an apples to apples route.  And speaking of an apples to apples comparison….There are several perfectly viable non-tunnel colocations routes that are over $100million cheaper than the re-route.  Why are we not looking at those?

  • JudeCivic says:

    September 11, 2013 at 11:07 am

    Enough with this Rich-Poor baloney. The people who live on the Kenilworth Trail are mostly renters with modest incomes. The Kenilworth Trail skirts the outside edge of Kenwood. It does not go through Kenwood. Go bike the trail. You’ll see tons of bikers using it to commute.

    The real argument for scrapping this route is that it does not serve our city. The idea that light rail of any sort is good for the environment is a canard. A majority of the people who work in downtown Minneapolis live in Minneapolis proper; that’s why the reverse commute numbers are only 25% in the DEIS. The SWLRT is projected in the DEIS to have a negative impact on air quality. Nobody read the DEIS.

    DeFiebre is sniffing around for some behind the scenes shenanigans:  He should look at Ryan Companies, they’re the ones who are going to benefit from this line. He should look at the myopic political ambitions of the local officials on the Corridor Management Committee. No one wants to say the emperor has no clothes, but the SWLRT line is really stupid.

  • Jim Mork says:

    September 12, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    My understanding was that MN2020 was founded as a progressive think tank. Which makes me confused when an opinion seems to imply that elections tell government all it needs to know about the popular will. The DFL was certainly on record for a balanced development of transportation. I never saw any candidate saying, “If you want LRT to go through Kenilworth, vote for me.”  Conservatives have long argued we don’t have democracy, we have a republic. But the fact is that the Bill of Rights makes free assembly a sacred right.  That obviously means that those who ratified the Constitution fully expected government to make mistakes. So they wanted to make SURE people would have continuous input to government decisions. It wasn’t take your shot on election day and then shut up.So now the appointees on the Metro Council are hearing popular input on the routing of rail. And if they don’t listen, then they are exalting their will above that of the electorate. We’ve seen way too much of that in the past on every level of government. And if you don’t support that approach in one issue area, you can’t ethically support it in others.