An equity argument for Southwest light rail

Supporters of the massive transit project urge leaders to push past doubts and delays

NACDI President Jay Bad Heart Bull said a 21st Street Station would give Phillips residents access to Southwest light rail and jobs. Credit: Dylan Thomas

Supporters of Southwest Light Rail Transit rallied at a public hearing in Minneapolis Thursday, framing the more than $1.67-billion transportation project as an investment in equity.

A coalition representing Minneapolis communities of color and neighborhoods with concentrated poverty urged decision-makers to move forward with the controversial light-rail line, a 15.8-mile extension of the Green Line soon to begin operating between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Running between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, it is seen as a vital link to jobs for many who rely on transit.

Several, including Rev. Jerry McAfee, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, also called for commitments from the Metropolitan Council, the lead agency on the project, to aim higher on minority hiring goals during construction and to ensure access to the line from low-income neighborhoods.

“You have the opportunity to move people from poverty to progress,” McAfee testified before a joint meeting of the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority and Met Council, adding: “We need it.”

Unlike most previous public meetings, the testimony from about 45 speakers was, on balance, in support of the line. But the doubts that have delayed the Twin Cities largest transit project surfaced again Thursday, too.

Questions were raised about whether the massive investment will ever pay off in jobs or drivers diverted from area highways. In Minneapolis, the line will tunnel beneath the Kenilworth rail and trail corridor, and several testified that the risk of environmental harm to groundwater and nearby lakes was just too great.

“How many lakes must we lose before we become a city of stadiums?” asked Susu Jeffrey of the Bryn Mawr neighborhood. 

Negotiations continue

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, too, is seeking assurances that two sections of tunnel won’t harm lakes and nearby parkland. It recently requested Met Council engineers re-examine whether it should route trains over or under the Kenilworth Channel, a waterway that cuts across the Kenilworth Corridor to connect Lake of the Isles with Cedar Lake.

The May 21 resolution cites a portion of the Federal Transportation Act meant to protect parkland and historic cites known as Section 4(f), and suggests a tunnel beneath the channel might cause less harm than a bridge over it. Met Council adopted the latter option earlier this spring.

Asked about the tunnel Thursday, the project’s chief engineer, Jim Alexander, said, “I think we’ve done what we need to do to see if it’s going to work.”

Alexander added that the Park Board’s questions were “getting into EIS territory,” referring to the federally required environmental impact statement due in its final form sometime next year. Thursday’s public hearing was part of a separate state-governed approval process known as municipal consent.

The Park Board has no role official in that process, which requires Met Council, the county and all five cities on the line to review and approve plans. As of late May, Minneapolis was the only municipality that hadn’t scheduled a public hearing.

Minneapolis’ support for the current Southwest light rail route hinged on a plan to first shift freight rail traffic out of the Kenilworth Corridor. But the Met Council ultimately voted with St. Louis Park, whose leaders didn’t want the freight trains running through their city.

At loggerheads with the Met Council, Minneapolis entered into mediation with the regional planning body in May. Arthur Boylan, the recently retired federal chief magistrate for the District of Minnesota, is overseeing negotiations.

Peter Wagenius, policy director for Mayor Betsy Hodges and the city’s point man on Southwest light rail, said he could not comment on when Minneapolis might fulfill its role in the municipal consent process.

“We’re working with the judge and we’re going to respect that process,” Wagenius said.

Tunnel debate

While current Southwest light rail plans call for two sections of tunnel, one south and one north of the channel, with the bridge in-between, some are calling for Met Council to eliminate the north tunnel. The change would shave an estimated $55 million–$60 million in costs and bring back the 21st Street Station in the Kenwood neighborhood, a light-rail stop bypassed by the current tunnel configuration.

Jay Bad Heart Bull, president and CEO of the Native American Community Development Institute based in the Phillips neighborhood, said that station offers the most direct connection to light rail from South Minneapolis via regular Franklin Avenue bus service.

“If we don’t have connections to jobs … then we’re going to miss the boat once again,” Bad Heart Bull said.

Eliminating the north tunnel also has the backing of Todd Klingel, president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. Planners should be thinking of how to maximize the potential for workers to reverse-commute from the city to suburban jobs, Klingel testified.

The Kenwood neighborhood has been a base of opposition to the current light rail route through Minneapolis, but Klingel suggested people who live there — “like I used to,” he added — would probably use the train if it stopped nearby.