Rich ‘hoods, poorer ‘hoods toss LRT hot potato

Lake of the Isles, Lyndale Avenue neighborhoods concerned about a potential Southwest light-rail route through their areas

The Southwest Corridor Transit Study being conducted by the Hennepin County Rail Authority has yielded four options for a future Light Rail Transit route connecting southwest suburbs to downtown. Two routes would run though Minneapolis. One follows the Kenilworth Trail to downtown through Bryn Mawr, Kenwood and Cedar-Isles-Dean, and the other takes the Midtown Greenway to Lyndale Avenue north into downtown through East Isles, Lowry Hill East, Whittier and Stevens Square.

Although neighborhood groups are just beginning to learn of the options and haven’t yet taken a formal position, some near the Lyndale route believe it is only an option because wealthier Kenilworth-area neighborhoods have long opposed revived rail service on the trail.

"Just because the people in Kenwood don’t want it there, they think they can just jam it in a lower-income neighborhood," said Leslie Nitabach, executive coordinator for the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, which is just south of where the Lyndale Avenue route would turn for downtown.

Nitabach said that although LNA doesn’t have an official position on a preferred light-rail option, residents voiced concerns at their November meeting. They said that the Lyndale option was more complicated and an effort to appease residents in the swankier parts of town. Nitabach said neighbors also raised concerns about light-rail construction tearing up Lyndale Avenue and creating more car congestion.

Concerned about the Lyndale route, the Midtown Greenway Coalition passed a resolution Dec. 5 that light rail enter downtown west of Lake of the Isles. "The Greenway would be better served if whatever transit the Southwest Corridor uses be kept out of the Greenway Corridor," said John DeWitt, chair of the Coalition’s transit committee.

DeWitt said the Coalition wants a transportation plan running the Greenway’s length from west of Lake Calhoun to the Mississippi River, instead of turning off at Lyndale.

Witt said the coalition also passed a resolution supporting historic trolley use in the Greenway, because it can be installed more quickly and less expensively than light rail.

Although the Calhoun-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association also has not selected a preferred route, longtime board member and former CIDNA president David Shirley said the issue has been around for a long time.

CIDNA voted against the Kenilworth option in the ’80s, when the county did a similar Southwest Corridor Transit Study, Shirley said, supporting the possibility of a route down what is now the Greenway.

Shirley said because of that opposition, the county suggested other options through Southwest, such as 1st Street, Pillsbury or Nicollet avenues, and 29th Street. However, Shirley said that the alternatives weren’t that feasible, and were just comparisons for the favored Kenilworth option.

Shirley said the county is doing the same thing now, throwing in the Lyndale alternative to appear they haven’t made up their mind on the Kenilworth route. "The reason they prefer Lyndale is because they know it won’t happen," he said.

Derek Crider, Hennepin County manager of engineering and transit planning, said the county does not favor one option. He said all options were created at the same time based on county interests, freeways and principal arterial streets.

Still, Crider said the Kenilworth option would be much more cost-effective.

He said problems with the Lyndale option are houses so close to the tracks, and the logistics of getting the light-rail cars out of the Greenway trench to street level.

Crider said that to make light-rail work on Lyndale, engineers would have to eliminate parking on the east side of the street, or give up one driving lane, considerably slowing traffic. Crider said traffic lights would also have to be installed at many new locations, causing more slow-downs.

He said Lyndale’s upside is more riders, because light-rail would intersect with the Uptown bus transit station at Hennepin Avenue. "To hit that node with LRT would be an advantage," he said.

Crider pointed out that Kenilworth would also be cheaper because the county already owns the trail’s railroad right-of-way and wouldn’t have to tear up streets.

Crider said once the study is complete in March 2003, a technical advisory committee will make a recommendation to the County’s Policy Advisory Committee. That group will identify one, or more, of the four route options deemed worthy of more research.

From there, he said, the process would start over again with the county going back into the community in fall 2003 via neighborhood groups and public information meetings about each route’s environmental impact.

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who chairs the Policy Advisory Committee and represents constituents along the Kenilworth Trail and the Greenway, said she does not have a preference.

However, Dorfman acknowledged that the Greenway option "isn’t a favorite" and sees problems with its current route. However, she said once the study is complete, one of the two Minneapolis options will remain on the table.