SWLRT: Who will be held accountable?

“While Hennepin County has been blamed for not resolving the potential conflict between light-rail and freight trains, it could easily have been foreseen by Met Council staff, the planners and the like, at least five years if not 10 years ahead of now. “   Gov. Dayton, April 9, 2014 

The planning failure of the Minneapolis portion of Southwest light rail was easily foreseen five to 10 years ago. Yet, the project was pushed forward without addressing the basic planning requirements to reroute freight out of the Kenilworth Corridor. Now the Met Council is seeking municipal consent for co-location of freight rail and LRT, and shallow tunnels in the Kenilworth Corridor, pushing ahead a design that is in direct violation of all previous planning and has not undergone required environmental study. It is also in direct violation of Minneapolis’ condition for LRT in the Kenilworth — namely, the rerouting of freight from the Kenilworth Corridor and the Chain of Lakes.

Contrary to the facts and to civic fairness, Minneapolis is blamed for holding up the SWLRT process. But who is really responsible, and who will be held accountable for this extremely destructive failure in the SWLRT project?

Planning on Failure

Planning for SWLRT began nearly 15 years ago. The Kenilworth route was one of several considered for Minneapolis.  A premise of the Kenilworth option, documented in many places, was “the LRT [Kenilworth] alternatives require that the existing freight rail service be rerouted through St. Louis Park” (SWLRT Alternatives Analysis, 2007).  Freight relocation was Hennepin County’s policy from the beginning. However, due diligence was never performed to determine the feasibility of the freight reroute.

Resulting from lack of due diligence, the individuals leading SWLRT planning, serving Hennepin County and the SWLRT Policy Advisory Committee (PAC), did not understand the actual feasibility — both technical and political — of rerouting the freight from the Kenilworth corridor, nor did they obtain agreement with the freight company before recommending Kenilworth as the “Locally Preferred Alternative” (LPA) in 2009.  They also decided to consider the freight reroute a “separate project,” but it was a project without a budget or plan.  

Hennepin County and the PAC favored Kenilworth to provide shorter commute times for suburban riders, and because it seemed cheaper and easier than routing SWLRT through dense areas of Minneapolis. Not including the cost of the freight reroute was also an essential component of the cost analysis that made Kenilworth appear cheaper. Determining the actual feasibility of the Kenilworth route was not done until the railroad company hired engineers and in January 2013 rejected as unsafe the County’s proposed relocation options.

After the last 16 months of back-and-forth engineering and pitting communities bitterly against each other, we now know what should have been known five to 10 years ago — Kenilworth as defined by the Alternatives Analysis was never a viable alternative. The Met Council took over from the County in January 2013 and oversaw this process. The Met Council’s policy has been that it would not consider other LRT routes for Minneapolis, under any circumstances. Even if determined that the premises and promises of the LPA couldn’t be fulfilled, it would force the Kenilworth route.

Disenfranchisement of Minneapolis

Rather than the Kenilworth option, Mayor R.T. Rybak’s office supported an alignment that would serve Uptown and dense neighborhoods to the east in South Minneapolis. Regardless, because inaccurate assumptions underpinned the Kenilworth alternative, fair and competent comparison of competing alternatives could not and did not occur. This failure in planning meant that Minneapolis was disenfranchised from the alignment selection process as the unviable Kenilworth option distorted and eclipsed real planning and options.

Last October, when the extent of the planning failures became clear, former Mayor Rybak voted “No” on the co-location, shallow tunnels plan the Met Council nonetheless has now approved.  At that time he noted, “The history on this is clear. The county pushed the idea of the Kenilworth Corridor over our objections.”   

Mayor Hodges also voted “No” on the co-location plan. Summarizing the no accountability stance of members at the April 2 SWLRT Corridor Management Committee meeting, she said, “I’ve heard you all today say, well, you can’t go back in the past, it is what it is.” Hodges underscored the city’s position on freight and the preemption of Minneapolis’ participation in alignment selection:

“If you had told Minneapolis in 2009 that the reroute — what was going to happen, as they already been talking about for years and years, and the promises that had already been made – and you had told Minneapolis, well, we’ll do reroute but only if the railroads don’t object … then Minneapolis would not have voted for that locally preferred alternative. This would not be the route that Minneapolis would have supported for light rail.  We would’ve had a clarion call … we need to find another alternative here because our support is predicated on the reroute of freight.” 

Kenilworth is no compromise and far worse than a bad deal for Minneapolis.

Who will be held accountable?

With the destructive history outlined above and the Governor’s conclusion that it all could have been easily foreseen five to 10 years ago, it is not acceptable governance to grant legitimacy to the SWLRT process. And the mistakes keep coming. It defies common sense and threatens municipal self-determination to ignore implications of the most recent incident in which the Met Council sent a very different design to Minneapolis from the shallow tunnels plan the Met Council approved one day earlier.

Public integrity demands a thorough, independent investigation to determine how this “easily foreseen” failure occurred, who, specifically, and what is responsible, and how they will be held accountable. The regional planning process must be reformed to restore trust in government as fair, representative, and competent. For Minneapolis, the demand for accountability is critical to send the message that it unequivocally rejects being a passive casualty of this easily foreseen failure or the victim of the next failure sure to come.

Amy Rock is a member of LRT Done Right