Divided Park Board passes SWLRT agreement

The Park Board passed a tentative agreement to a bridge over the Kenilworth Channel and a more prominent role in future light rail planning.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board narrowly passed a tentative agreement with Metropolitan Council Wednesday that includes dropping a tunnel option in favor of a bridge over the Kenilworth Channel for the Southwest Light Rail Transit Project.

In exchange, Met Council would agree to give the Park Board a more prominent role in its planning of light rail projects. Met Council would also reimburse the Park Board for staff time up to $250,000 for current and future light rail projects, including approximately $21,500 for staff time and nearly $150,000 for the anticipated costs of the board’s engineering studies on tunnel options. 

The agreement would put an end to the dispute between the board and council over the $1.6 billion project, which would extend the Green Line from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

The Park Board withdrew pursuing alternative tunnel alternatives options due to $115 to 140 million in additional costs, including $75 to $90 million for construction and $40 to $50 million for delays. A tunnel could also trigger the Municipal Consent process over again and affect President Barack Obama’s recommendation of funding the project for the 2016 federal budget, according to the resolution. 

“While a tunnel option has been determined to be feasible and the least impactful channel crossing alternative, the board may consider a tunnel to be not prudent because it results in costs of extraordinary magnitude,” said Park Superintendent Jayne Miller to the board. “The time required for additional review under Municipal Consent results in additional costs of extraordinary magnitude and threaten the viability of the SWLRT project.”

According to Section 4(f) of the Federal Transportation Act, a transportation project that uses parkland can only move forward with a proposed route if there’s no “feasible and prudent” alternative. On top of that, however, some planning is necessary to minimize adverse environmental effects. Under the agreement, the Park Board and Met Council assert that a tunnel option would not be “prudent.”

The Park Board would get a formal role in light rail projects to voice its concerns earlier, much like the city and county. Unlike most park departments that are part of the city, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is independent and isn’t included in Municipal Consent under state law.

Met Council staff will use some of the board’s engineering work in its examination of the project’s impact on parkland. The board anticipates receiving a $148,800 reimbursement from Met Council, which is half the cost of two engineering studies into the feasibility and prudence of tunnel options.

Met Council is expected to approve the agreement March 11. The two parties jointly announced the agreement in late February.


Commissioners air grievances on SWLRT

The board voted 6-3 to approve the memorandum of understanding (MOU) after several amendments and impassioned speeches. 

A couple Park Board commissioners used the opportunity to criticize years of SWLRT decisions. Commissioner Anita Tabb, who joined fellow commissioners Meg Forney and Annie Young as the board’s dissenting voices, criticized the project’s process for a lack of public engagement, poor leadership from several public entities and increasing costs. 

“That we’ve gotten to this point in the Southwest LRT project, I think should be a Harvard case study in how not to run government,” she said prior to the vote. “The Park Board is the only entity that has had the backbone to ask for a process that is fair and right.”

She described Gov. Mark Dayton’s recently proposed $3.77 million cut to the Park Board’s budget over concerns of project delays as a “temper tantrum.” On a lack of Legislature support and increasing pressure on the board, Tabb said she was “incredibly disappointed and disgusted.”

Forney echoed her dissent and tried to send the agreement back to staff for additional work, citing a disjointed relationship between the two entities. “This process has been flawed the entire way,” she said. “Trust has been eroded completely here.”

President Liz Wielinski and commissioners Brad Bourn, John Erwin, Steffanie Musich, Jon Olson and Scott Vreeland approved the resolution. 

Musich and Wielinski said they felt more optimistic for the next light rail project on the horizon, the Bottineau Blue Line extension to Brooklyn Park, which has a 2018 construction start.

“While this doesn’t make us 100 percent happy I think we’ve got a good agreement,” Wielinski said. “I know we’re going to have a better relationship going forward with Bottineau… I think that we’ll have a much better outcome there.”