A federal judge said the Metropolitan Council was walking a legal “tightrope” as it sought local approvals for the Southwest Light Rail Transit project in 2013 and 2014, but it did not violate federal environmental regulations.
In an order filed Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim ruled in favor of the regional planning agency in a lawsuit filed in 2014 by the Lakes and Parks Alliance, a citizens group. The alliance alleged that Met Council short-circuited the federal environmental review process as it sought municipal consent for the nearly $1.9 billion transit project.
Describing it as a “close case,” Tunheim granted Met Council’s request for summary judgment, finding that the regional planning agency did not “irreversibly commit itself to a single alternative” even as it zeroed in on a plan to run light rail trains in tunnels through Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor.
“We are pleased the Court ruled with the Council, putting to an end this drawn-out challenge to the Southwest LRT project, and acknowledging the Council’s efforts to balance federal and state laws,” Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff said in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon. “The Council continues to engage residents and businesses as we plan for this project, which will improve mobility and connect people with jobs all across the region.”
Mary Pattock of Lakes and Parks Alliance wrote in an email that she was “extremely disappointed” with the ruling, adding that the group would be considering its options going forward.
In his ruling, Tunheim affirmed that “the proper procedures were followed in the approval of the South Tunnel Plan,” referring to the shallow cut-and-cover tunnel light rail trains will run through where the SWLRT route passes between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. The tunnel was a late addition to the project, an alternative chosen to satisfy three parties with a stake in the nearly $1.9-billion transit project: Minneapolis, St. Louis Park and Twin Cities and Western Railroad.
Met Council at one point planned to run light rail trains through the Kenilworth Corridor at-grade. But they faced objections from both Twin Cities and Western Railroad, which operates freight trains in the corridor and wouldn’t agree to a detour, and St. Louis Park, where local elected stood firm against a proposal to reroute TC&W freight traffic through their suburb.
Meanwhile, Minneapolis officials said they would not accept any plan that kept both freight and light-rail trains at-grade in the Kenilworth Corridor. Minneapolis ultimately agreed to the tunnel plan after negotiating a memorandum of understanding with Met Council that secured the city a station at 21st Street in Kenwood and funds for Kenilworth Corridor design upgrades.
In a separate memorandum negotiated with St. Louis Park, Met Council agreed to end the study of any plan to reroute freight trains, except as required for environmental review.
Hennepin County and all five cities along the 14.5-mile SWLRT route — Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie — voted in 2014 to grant the project municipal consent, a step required under state statute. Met Council had already completed a draft environmental impact statement on the project in 2012, so in 2015 the agency completed a supplemental statement that included analysis of the tunnels. After making other cost-saving changes to the project, Met Council then went back to the cities along the route and won another round of municipal consent approvals.
Lakes and Parks Alliance alleged that Met Council acted improperly by completing the state municipal consent process while the federal environmental review was ongoing. In its lawsuit, the group argued that Met Council essentially cut off alternative routing options before getting the full picture of the project’s environmental impact.
Tunheim, however, found Met Council had not “irreversibly and irretrievably” settled on one route.
“The municipal-consent process was, and remains, nonbinding,” Tunheim wrote in his order, citing as evidence the fact that Met Council initiated a second round of municipal consent for SWLRT after changing its plans for Kenilworth Corridor.
Tunheim said the memoranda of understanding negotiated with the cities of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park were also nonbinding — whether or not local elected officials view them as such. In the order, he described them as “promises that can be broken.” He also found the Federal Transit Administration was not bound by the state-governed municipal-consent process when it issued its record of decision on SWLRT, indicating that Met Council had met the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.
“All told, these facts show that the Council did not engage in premeditation. Rather, the Council focused, albeit rather intently, on its preferred alternative, the South Tunnel Plan, which it is permitted to do,” Tunheim wrote.
In Tunheim’s view, Met Council was more focused on securing funding for the project and winning municipal consent than advocating for one route option to the exclusion of any other. The agency was more concerned about getting tracks laid than where they would go, and Met Council’s willingness to alter the plan, add a tunnel and go back for a second round of municipal consent showed that was the case, he added.
“To be sure, route predetermination would have helped secure funding and obtain municipal consent,” he wrote. “But the facts indisputably show that the Council prioritized funding and municipal consent over specific routes or alternatives. When faced with financial pressures and the prospect of not obtaining municipal consent, the Council was willing to change the proposed route to advance their funding and municipal-consent goals.”
In her email, Pattock described Tunheim’s contention that Met Council could back out of its memoranda of agreement as “shocking.”
“The council has a sweet legal status — it’s unregulated with a get-out-of-jail card,” she added. “How did that happen?”
Click here to read the judge’s order.