Citizens group appeals ruling in SWLRT lawsuit

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The citizens group that lost a lawsuit alleging the Metropolitan Council violated environmental laws during Southwest Light Rail Transit planning is appealing the decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis announced the decision March 29, about a month after U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim found in favor of Met Council in a lawsuit originally filed in 2014. In his decision, Tunheim wrote that the regional planning agency walked a legal “tightrope” but did not break the law when it sought local approvals for the project even as a federal environmental review was ongoing. Although he described it as a “close case,” the judge ultimately rejected the alliance’s argument that Met Council impermissibly settled on one route for the light rail project before completing an environmental review of alternatives.

Tunheim’s ruling hinged on his view that those local approvals, known as municipal consent, were, as Tunheim wrote, “nonbinding.” He also described the memoranda of agreement negotiated by Met Council with the cities of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park as “promises that can be broken.”

“All told, these facts show that the Council did not engage in premeditation. Rather, the Council focused, albeit rather intently, on its preferred alternative, the South Tunnel Plan, which it is permitted to do,” Tunheim wrote.

Alliance spokesperson Mary Pattock said it was “very disturbing” to read Tunheim’s ruling and realize the Met Council could simply back out of its agreements.

“Who’s going to want to do business with the Met Council anymore?” she asked.

Pattock said the alliance was made up of a “core group” of about 20–30 people but has hundreds of supporters. She said they would likely “go back to the community with our hands out again” to cover the costs of the appeal.

“It’s like an illness that won’t go away,” she said. “And to commit to continue to work on it was not a decision that was taken lightly by the board.”

In a statement released by the agency, Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff said the alliance “had every opportunity to air neighbors’ concerns” during the nearly four-year court case.

“We are confident that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals will affirm Chief Judge Tunheim’s decision,” Tchourumoff said. “The SWLRT project remains on track and we plan to begin construction this fall.”