A bumpy ride for Southwest light rail?

Opponents already considering legal action

On the same October night the Minnesota Vikings clashed with the Green Bay Packers in a Monday Night Football match-up at the Metrodome, Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman headed to the Kenwood Community Center.

Dorfman’s meeting, while certainly more civil, was nearly as emotionally charged. She heard from concerned Kenwood residents about plans to route a light rail line through their neighborhood.

“That was the most difficult neighborhood meeting I’ve had in my 10 years at the county,” she said.

At that time, there was still some question over what route a light rail line connecting Eden Prairie to Downtown would follow through Southwest. The Hennepin County Board’s unanimous vote Nov. 3 to endorse the Southwest Light Rail Transit (LRT) route along the Kenilworth Corridor through Kenwood essentially ended that debate.

Still, concerns remain. At least one opponent of the Kenilworth route is prepared to take legal action if not enough is done to protect residents and city amenities along the future transit corridor.

Also, some maintain the decision to drop another potential route through densely populated Uptown proves the route-selection process was flawed. Dorfman disagreed, saying the process was both transparent and open to the public.

Many in Southwest supported the decision. The neighborhood associations of Bryn Mawr, East Isles, Lowry Hill and Whittier all went on record in support of the Kenilworth Corridor route for Southwest LRT.

In any case, Dorfman said she would focus her attention now on mitigating the impact of the line on nearby residents.

Mitigation was a key concern for Cedar-Isles-Dean resident Art Higinbotham, who lives not far from where the proposed Southwest LRT line would cross Cedar Lake Avenue at-grade. Also president of the Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association (CIDNA), Higinbotham has warned for months that frequent light rail crossings would not only impede traffic flow, but could limit emergency vehicle access to his neighborhood.

He said a “coalition of interested neighbors” was prepared to file a court challenge if they believe plans for mitigation efforts fall short. They’ve already consulted with attorneys representing the University of Minnesota in a lawsuit over the Central Corridor light rail line down University Avenue.

“They’re willing to help us,” he said.

Higinbotham highlighted several other areas of concern, including narrow sections of the Kenilworth Corridor where tracks would run close to nearby condominiums.

“The proximity of the light rail to bedroom windows will be such that, unless there’s mitigation in the form of a tunnel, we think we have a good case with the FTA,” he said, referring to the Federal Transit Authority.

The FTA plays a crucial role in the light rail planning process by deciding which of many projects developing simultaneously around the country deserve funding. About half of the more than $1 billion cost of building the Southwest line was expected to come from the federal government.

The Kenilworth Corridor route was chosen because it was the only option with wide support that also hit the target for the federal funding formula used by the FTA. That formula is based on the cost to build and operate the line, estimates of daily use by commuters and other factors.

Higinbotham was one of many who questioned the ridership and cost estimates used during route selection, and suggested the line might be more expensive to build than expected.

“Combined with the required costs of mitigation … could make this a very difficult proposition for the feds,” he predicted.

Those lingering doubts about the planning process still stung some Uptown residents who wanted to see light rail routed down the Midtown Greenway before turning north into Downtown.

Anders Imboden of East Calhoun said “a lot of question marks” about the process remained.

“The major flaw in the process was transparency,” Imboden said. “Listening wasn’t the problem, but what they did with the information.”

He said the decision-makers missed a chance to alleviate traffic congestion and boost transit usage in Uptown.

Some relief for Uptown residents may come in the form of a street car on the Midtown Greenway, although there are no concrete plans for building a line, yet. Dorfman said she supported the idea.

Dorfman expressed optimism that Minneapolis residents left with a sour taste after the Southwest LRT vote would rejoin the process in the coming months. One of the next steps involves more detailed planning for the design of light rail stations in Minneapolis.

Southwest LRT is now in the hands of the Metropolitan Council, which must grant final approval of the selected route. It was expected to act early next year.