Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Met Council, Minneapolis find LRT compromise

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Minneapolis and the Metropolitan Council jointly announced Tuesday, July 8, 2014, a "tentative agreement" to proceed with the planned development of the Southwest Light Rail Project, linking downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, Minn.

The two parties have sparred for months over the project's right-of-way options, generated by proposals for LRT to share the right-of-way with existing freight rail operations. Glencoe, Minn.-based short line Twin Cities & Western Railroad, the Railway Age 2008 Short Line of the Year, operates over the existing route.

Though the line would serve four other cities in addition to Minneapolis, each of which had various problems or concerns, Minneapolis, the state's largest, has been most difficult to mollify.

The dispute's intensity raised doubts about the line's future and even of LRT's viability in the region, even as the Green Line (Central Line) opened last month between Minneapolis and St. Paul, drawing substantial ridership.

The tentative agreement, "which includes two memoranda of understanding, was reached as a result of discussions mediated by retired federal judge The Honorable Arthur J. Boylan," the parties said in a joint statement.

At the city's request, one memorandum of understanding awaiting approval by both sides calls for the Metropolitan Council to: redesign the Minneapolis portion of the Southwest Light Rail Corridor to remove the light rail tunnel north of the water channel connecting Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles; add back the 21st Street Station; and add City-requested pedestrian-access, noise mitigation, landscape restoration and other improvements along the portion of the corridor in Minneapolis.

If approved by both sides, the Met Council's revised budget for Southwest light rail will be reduced by $30 million, from $1.683 billion to $1.653 billion, as a result of these changes to the preliminary design of the project.

According to a second memorandum of understanding, the parties tentatively have agreed that Met Council will work closely with Minneapolis and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority to ensure that the Kenilworth freight corridor remains in public ownership, which the parties agree will decrease the chances that freight trains will increase in frequency or carry more dangerous cargo through the corridor.

Metropolitan Council reportedly will take the following actions:

Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh will convene a meeting of the Southwest Corridor Management Committee Wednesday, July 9, to review and discuss the tentative agreement. The Metropolitan Council will meet later in the afternoon to consider approving the amended preliminary project scope and budget and set a joint public hearing with Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority for August 13, 2014, where residents will be invited to testify.

At the same meeting, the Met Council will consider the two memoranda of understanding between the Metropolitan Council and the City regarding ownership of the Kenilworth freight corridor and the City-requested changes to the preliminary design plan. If approved, the Metropolitan Council will present a new municipal consent package to the City on Thursday, July 10, triggering a new timeline for a final municipal consent vote from the City. Hennepin County will vote on August 19, 2014 at a special board meeting to approve municipal consent.

For its part, Minneapolis will take the following actions:

The Minneapolis City Council's Transportation & Public Works Committee will review the basic outline of the tentative agreement at the end of its regular committee meeting Tuesday, July 8, and at a public briefing in the evening, residents will have an opportunity to learn more specific details about the tentative agreement and provide public comment. Minneapolis residents will have another opportunity for input at a public hearing on municipal consent on August 19. The City Council will vote on municipal consent at its regular meeting on August 29.

The tentative agreement will become final after it has been approved and signed by both parties.

"The Metropolitan Council and the City of Minneapolis agree that Southwest LRT is an essential component toward building a comprehensive transit system that will benefit the region as a whole as well as Minneapolis," said Met Council Chair Susan Haigh. "

"The City of Minneapolis has always strongly supported the vision for Southwest LRT," said Mayor Betsy Hodges. "Our support now comes at a high cost – an unexpected and unwelcome cost – because freight was supposed to be removed. Governor Dayton is correct: the Kenilworth Corridor will not be the same. It could have been far worse, however, if not for the protections secured in this tentative agreement. With freight staying in the corridor, and given the constraints we face, this is the most responsible way to get the project built."

"I expect that and understand why residents along the Kenilworth corridor will be disappointed, but the greater good demands that we seek a path for Southwest LRT to move forward," continued Mayor Hodges.