Lining up on LRT

Neighborhoods have conflicting preferences in light-rail debate

Like a long-haul train barreling toward its destination, the years-long process of selecting a route for the Southwest Light Rail Transit (LRT) line is speeding toward a conclusion sometime next year.

As planning moves into its final phases, Southwest neighborhoods remain divided on what route trains should follow between Eden Prairie and Downtown, judging from the resolutions passed by neighborhood organizations and conversations with neighborhood leaders.

Some would welcome the LRT to their neighborhood
to ease commutes and promote development. Others are concerned a busy transit line would disrupt their communities.

In some cases, adjacent neighborhoods were at odds.

“I’m not sure there’s a win-win [solution] for everyone,” said Gail Dorfman, a Hennepin County commissioner who also chairs the Southwest LRT Policy Advisory Committee, a group of elected officials who will recommend a final alignment.

Still, Dorfman suggested now was the time to get neighborhood concerns on the record, as the county begins an 18-month environmental study known as the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The DEIS will begin with what are called “scoping” meetings in September, when members of the public can raise environmental concerns or specific community issues, such as noise, traffic congestion and safety in their neighborhoods.

Katie Walker, Hennepin County’s transit project manager, expected a recommendation on the final route selection by the end of next summer, even before the DEIS was complete. But it could take longer.

Walker said scoping meetings were the last chance to recommend other LRT alignments not already under consideration. Notably, one Cedar-Isles-Dean resident was building support for his alternative proposal, which may get consideration during the DEIS.

“It may take longer than 18 months, and the budget would have to be increased” if another alignment was considered, Walker said.

Still, Walker remained confident a Southwest LRT line could be up and running as soon as 2015, earlier than anticipated. After a final route is selected, preliminary engineering work likely will begin by mid-2009, she said.

Two routes, many opinions

There are two possible paths through Southwest neighborhoods on the table.

One light rail alignment follows the Kenilworth corridor through Cedar-Isles-Dean, Kenwood and Bryn Mawr. The other alignment heads east from Cedar-Isles-Dean, running in the Midtown Greenway trench through East Isles, the Wedge and Whittier before turning north on Nicollet Avenue and proceeding into downtown through Stevens Square.

Walker said there was not agreement among the neighborhoods along either route. Opinion within neighborhoods was mixed, too, she added.
“Minneapolis has been one of the big areas where there has been most of the debate on which route to take,” she said.

Along the Kenilworth route, a vocal group of Kenwood residents have raised concerns about noise, safety and the traffic associated with a proposed neighborhood park-and-ride station. Jeanette Colby noted the train would run along a well-used bike and pedestrian path and near a popular Cedar Lake beach.

“Right now it is just a beautiful, natural retreat in the city,” Colby said, “and that will change if you have trains coming through every three or four minutes.”

Just to the north, in Bryn Mawr, the neighborhood association board in April passed a resolution supporting the Kenilworth alignment. In their discussion, board members noted light rail was a critical component for development of nearby Bassett Creek Valley, a project it has supported.

To the east in the Whittier, it was the neighborhood business association that acted first, coming out in opposition to the Nicollet alignment over concerns about a long period of construction on Eat Street.

“It would just kill the independent businesses that were there,” said Whittier Alliance President Erica Christ, whose family owns the Black Forest Inn restaurant on Nicollet Avenue.

After months of debate, the Whittier Alliance passed a resolution in May that noted potential benefits, including improved transit reliability, but ultimately opposed the line.

That put them in opposition with the Stevens Square Community Organization, their neighbors to the north, which came out in support of the line months earlier.

Still, there was widespread sentiment among the neighborhood representatives who commented for the story that, whatever their preference, the final alignment was all but a done deal.

Weighing the options

Dorfman, while noting that things could change during the environmental review, acknowledged the Kenilworth alignment seemed to have the edge going into scoping meetings.

“At one of the last neighborhood meetings I said that if the Policy Advisory Committee were voting today, they’d likely support the Kenilworth alignment,” Dorfman said. “But we’re not voting today. We’re not voting for a long time.”

She pointed out that the Kenilworth alignment could connect “seamlessly” to the existing Hiawatha Line near the new Minnesota Twins ballpark, an important advantage.

Many involved in the debate acknowledge a line down the Midtown Greenway would go through several of the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods, potentially serving more riders than a Kenilworth line. But there have been questions about the feasibility of plans to turn on Nicollet Avenue, where light rail would be routed through a shallow tunnel.

Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association (CIDNA) President Art Higinbothum has offered his “Option E” as a compromise, and will work to have it considered during the DEIS.

The Option E route runs down the Midtown Greenway, but runs further east before turning on Park Avenue. CIDNA endorsed the plan in January.

Higinbothum said Option E would run past several of Minneapolis’ major employers, including Abbott Northwest Hospital. It would also run through neighborhoods packed with potential employees for the suburban businesses on the southern end of the LRT line, he argued.

“We’re saying rather than just being an express line from Eden Prairie, it should serve more residents and businesses in the city,” he said.

Wait-and-see

Minneapolis’ two representatives on the 11-member Policy Advisory Committee, City Council members Robert Lilligren (Ward 6) and Ralph Remington (Ward 10), both refrained from naming a favorite alignment.

Still, Lilligren noted several factors that could influence the outcome.

By adopting a redevelopment plan for Bassett Creek Valley, a plan that includes a stop on the Kenilworth alignment, the City Council had in a sense taken a position on alignment already, he suggested.

Another potential strike against the Nicollet alignment is that the area is already well served by bus.

Council Member Lisa Goodman (Ward 7), who represents residents of Kenwood and Bryn Mawr, acknowledged problems with routing LRT down the Midtown Greenway, but questioned a Kenilworth alignment that would bypass so many potential riders.

“I think rail belongs where people ride it, and people ride it on major commercial corridors,” Goodman said.

Mayor R.T. Rybak, like other city and county officials, declined to go on the record with a preferred alignment. But Rybak argued there must be some type of rail transit down the Midtown Greenway in the future — either light rail or streetcar — even if it’s not the Southwest LRT line.

“I feel very strongly that, however this decision is made, we have to have a way to get transit serving Uptown, Lyn-Lake, Midtown and connecting to the [Hiawatha] light rail line,” he said.

 
Steve Pease contributed to this report