Susu Jeffrey | Shafted by SWLRT: Comments on the Most Expensive Public Works Project Ever Proposed in Minnesota

The Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) public process by Hennepin County Commission and Metropolitan Council has been an exercise in pretend democracy. From the beginning the LRT was presented by elected and appointed government officials as a fait accompli.

By Susu Jeffrey  July 21, 2015

Although design plans have morphed since 2014 no new municipal consent procedure appears to be planned. With an estimated cost approaching $2-billion, half the funds from federal sources, SWLRT is the most expensive tax-payer program ever imagined for Minnesota.


The off and on again co-location of heavy and light rail traffic was a bait-&-switch tactic. To illustrate the intent to deceive the public about the safety of co-location no “blast zone” map of ethanol rail cars next to the SWLRT was produced for citizen inspection and comment.

From St. Louis Park to the baseball stadium, through the Chain of Lakes, the half mile wide residential and park land remains menaced. The manipulation of promises and threats reifies citizen mistrust of government powers.

The “Equity Train”

The “equity” argument for the SWLRT was a brilliant public relations maneuver to silence guilt-prone white people. Equity is P.C. The pitch was that underserved black Northsiders would get transportation to jobs in the southwest suburbs. Like the promise to move heavy freight with dangerous ethanol traffic out of the urban zone, the equity promise lapsed.

SWLRT was never planned to move the densely populated Minneapolis black Northside or white Uptown populations. In addition to being a construction jobs program the SWLRT was apparently designed as infrastructure for workers to get to suburban cubical factories.

Urban vs. Suburban

The wealthy southwest suburbs pitted their financial clout against urban public parklands and people—and money won. Furthermore the outcome was assured ahead of time since the elected Hennepin County Commission and the appointed Metropolitan Council are dominated by white suburbanites. Apparently black economic lives do not matter here.

Reducing Cars and Auto Emissions

The Draft EIS predicted no reduction in automobile greenhouse gas emissions with SWLRT until after 2050.


Destruction of parkland is the hallmark of recent transportation development in Minneapolis. Our famous parks, the only undeveloped urban land, are actually lakes, creeks and wetlands previously too wet for development

The Great Medicine Spring and Glenwood Spring

The Interstate-394 corridor is dewatered daily at the rate of 2.5-million gallons. Plastic drain tile pipes with little holes where groundwater infiltrates funnel the water into a series of ponds from the Highway 394/100 intersection to Sweeney Lake and out Bassett Creek, under downtown Minneapolis, to the Mississippi. A sign at the mouth of Bassett Creek used to warn pregnant women and children under six not to eat fish caught there.

Two springs dried up with Highway 394 permanent dewatering: Glenwood Spring, formerly sold as commercial spring (now well) water and the Great Medicine Spring in Theodore Wirth Park. Indian people “came hundreds of miles to get the benefit of its medicinal qualities” Col. John H. Stevens, first white Minneapolis resident, said of the Great Medicine Spring in 1874.

The place is still there but no water runs. Treated city water is now piped into Wirth Park. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board waited 10 years for the spring to recharge. In 1999 a 150-foot well was drilled with negligible results.

Coldwater Springs

The Hiawatha LRT project reduced the flow to Coldwater by more than 35 percent. Coldwater is the last natural spring in Hennepin County, is a federally recognized Dakota sacred site, it furnished water to Fort Snelling 1820-1920, and is considered the birthplace of Minnesota where the first Euro-American community developed to service the fort.

MnDOT offered to pump treated city water into the Coldwater reservoir before it was forced to redesign the Hwy 55/62 interchange. Nevertheless Hiawatha LRT and Highway 55 reroute construction resulted in the loss of 46,000 gal/day—from 130,000 down to 84,000. The Hwy 55/62 interchange pipes out 27,500 gal/day but a mysterious 18,500 gallons is simply gone.

“How could your professionals be so far off in their hydrology? What facts were not available to you,” Judge Franklin Knoll asked MnDOT attorneys in Hennepin County court 9/13/01. “MnDOT is one of the largest and most well-staffed departments in Minnesota. Your engineers, geologists and water specialists all signed off on this design,” Knoll said.

MnDOT attorney Lisa Crum said “MnDOT (design) standards were based on reasonable estimates.” Coldwater supporters were repeatedly told that the groundwater would “just flow around” sunken highways built into the water table. The inference was that the water would just flow around and return to its former paths. It did not.

Removing groundwater results in dirty water and dry land. The land dries out when groundwater is prohibited from running through nature’s slower filtration system. The water gets dumped into the lakes, creeks and the Mississippi with contaminants adhering to dirt particles. Think of mercury poisoning from fish taken in our northern lakes far from the coal-fired power plants that vented into the air.

Dry soil does not easily absorb the increasingly heavy storms events experienced with climate change. Storm water runs off quickly with top soil, fertilizers, air and road impurities, and goose and duck poop.

Tunnel Through the Chain of Lakes

A half-mile tunnel would be inserted (after tree removal) between Cedar, Lake of the Isles and Calhoun. Solid steel walls would be sunken 55-feet down for the length of the tunnel to anchor the 35-foot-wide structure. Otherwise it would float up or down with fluctuating underground water levels.

According to the Burns and McDonnell Engineering Company water study for the Metropolitan Council as much as 24,000 gallons per day from inside and around the tunnel would be pumped out. Less groundwater flow into and out of the lakes would allow more contaminants and particulate matter to fill in and remain in our public waters, our water commons.

Again citizens are being assured that the groundwater will “just flow around” a half mile long “shallow” tunnel—built into the already saturated land between the lakes. In fact the very same expert consultants in hydrology and geology are employing the very same language to assure Metropolitan Council appointees, Hennepin County Commissioners, Minnehaha Creek Watershed District staff and managers, and concerned citizens that groundwater will “just flow around” a huge underground tunnel in the land between the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes.

The idea that people can “manage” water is being sold like comfort food. Hydrologists, geologists, architects and engineers are hired to plan waterproof structures. Sure—in a virtual world. In our world infrastructure is I-35W falling into the Mississippi or a brain-eating amoeba in Lake Minnewaska.

The US business model did not evolve to plan sustainably. Public works programs are funded on a formula of minimum cost because cost is somehow limited to the cost of construction.

Although SWLRT is the most expensive public works program ever proposed in Minnesota wet soil conditions along the proposed route would multiply costs. “Reasonable estimates” versus digging down into a saturated landscape will become obvious if this project makes it through the legal hurtles set up to protect citizens from government-business collusion.

Conflict of Interest

The last hurtle before golden shovels break the soil is normally a permit from the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD). The district purchased 17-acres of land across the street from the proposed SWLRT station at Blake Road with a $15 million taxpayer bond.

Odds are the appointed MCWD Board of Managers would vote to permit SWLRT.

When developers take over a watershed the mandate to protect the water commons is compromised. So ownership of a $15 million parcel of land at the proposed SWLRT Blake station appears to have influenced MCWD’s favorable study of the proposed shallow tunnel plan.

Below are transcribed legal audio minutes of the May 8, 2014 regular meeting of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District Board of Managers (appointed by the Hennepin and Carver County Board of Commissioners).

The discussion centers on the SWLRT and 17 acres at Blake Road and West Lake Street, south of Knollwood Mall, in Hopkins, across the street from the proposed Blake SWLRT station. The station location is now part of a strip mall, just south of the railroad tracks and Pizza Luce at 210 North Blake Road.

The parcel includes a large cold food storage warehouse, and borders Minnehaha Creek and the Cedar Lake bike trail which is next to the RR tracks. The land was purchased about four years ago for $15 million for redevelopment investment, for storm water ponds (water storage) and Minnehaha Creek restoration.

At a MCWD Board of Managers meeting the question of interest payments on the $15 million bond was posed by SWLRT opponent Bob Carney. Managers skirted the question. Approximately $100,000 per year in interest payments would be expected.

The players in this 2014 audio transcription include MCWD Board of Managers:

–Sherry Davis White, president, Orono, term expired 3/15 (wife of former Orono mayor, Jim White who organizes housing developments), reappointed until 3/18

–Brian Shekleton, vice president, St. Louis Park, term expires 3//16 (works for Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin)

–Richard Miller, treasurer, Edina, 3/17 (former Wells Fargo employee who arranged bonding, government finance)

–Jeff Casale, secretary., Shorewood, 3/15 (realtor) Kurt Rogness of Minneapolis, architect, was appointed for a three-year term replacing Casale. Minor felony charges against Casale for using MCWD staff in his private real estate business were dropped because “the alleged embezzlement occurred outside the statute of limitations.”

Three managers were absent:

–Jim Calkins, Minnetonka, 3/16 (PhD, professor Horticultural Science UMN)

–Pamela Blixt, Minneapolis, 3/17 (MA public administration, City of Minneapolis  emergency services)

–Bill Olson, Victoria, 3/16 (engineer Rockwell International)


–Richard Miller “…the worst could be that LRT didn’t get approved…we’ve got to do a quiet plan if LRT doesn’t go through and it (the land) doesn’t have its commercial value at its highest and best use as a train station site….We’ve got to build in our budget someplace (for) the losses we’re going to absorb on disposing of that site, because we always know [sic] we’ve got more in it than we’ll get from it but the benefits of the (Minnehaha) creek frontage, and the (storm water) storage capacity, etc. you know it had certain value to us and so that could cover the, but you know, if we do have a problem in 2 or 3 years or 4 years you know let’s not have it in a situation where we’re in a disaster with no plan. And I don’t think it would take much of an effort to plan it out, you know, how we’re going to pay for the costs.

[The bonding loan to be paid back with tax money comes due in 2017]

–James Wisker, MCWD staff Director of Planning, Projects & Land Conservation: “By the end of July we should have a lot more clarity…worst case scenario planning we should revisit like, July 24th by then all municipal consent should have occurred.”

[In a 6/16/14 email Wisker wrote to the author: “Regarding (SWLRT) dewatering. I referenced that there would be no system in place to perpetually dewater following construction completion.”

–Richard Miller: “We can’t be naked when that $15-million comes due (in) 2017….We’re planning for the best but we’re ready for the worst”.

–unidentified male voice: “When we started on this…we had very strong interest in senior housing…there’s no question it’s going to be more valuable with light rail…

–Brian Shekleton: “And I will offer that light rail will happen…

–Jeff Casale: (interrupts) “That’s going in the minutes I think.”

— (laugh)

–Brian Shekleton continues: “and by every indication I get that commitment from (Minneapolis) city council members.”

Jeff Casale: If we’re going to have this on the record…disaster is nothing like I would have considered it as. I think the property has been improved significantly from the work that we’ve done surrounding it…whether or not LRT goes in that property will have significant real estate value and I would not characterize it at all as disaster planning.

Richard Miller: “Well, you can call it what you want but it will be (a disaster) when the note comes due and we got a third of the value of the note.”

The rhetorical questions are: who’s watching out for the water and is this land purchase a conflict of interest for MCWD managers who would be voting to permit the SWLRT?

It appears that citizens, not officials or paid experts or politicians or white suburban developers, care about the sustainability of keeping Minneapolis waters clean enough for human recreation.

Clearly the voting managers of a permitting agency should be leery of the appearance of a conflict of interest regarding public money and political power. It certainly appears to be conflict of interest, legally actionable or not.

The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District deciders have violated public trust with their ambitious financial scheme that supersedes the preservation and protection of the water commons.

Water Standards Enforcement

Neither the MCWD nor the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has enforcement powers. The state legislature did not grant permitting agencies police powers.

It took the DNR three years to win a court order to stop illegal pumping of groundwater from 1800 West Lake Street into the lagoon between Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun. Some 240,000 gallons per day of water from a sub-sub basement parking garage was piped into a city sewer emptying into the lagoon.

Two kinds of pollution flowed into the lagoon and Calhoun and down the chain: a temperature differential and garage drippings including grains of heavy metals from cars mixed with oil products. The temperature change was noticed by Loppett organizers when parts of the lagoon failed to freeze which could have allowed skiers to fall through rotten ice.

The problem was “solved” by moving the discharge pipe. Before the 1800 West Lake Street upscale apartment construction the Minneapolis Park Board spent a quarter million dollars on Lake Calhoun clean up.

Calhoun and Cedar lakes have six of the city’s dozen swimming beaches. Lake Hiawatha at the butt end of Minnehaha Creek accumulates all the flowing pollutants from much of Hennepin County and most of Minneapolis since water obeys gravity.

The Park Board plans to close the beach at Hiawatha, remove the sand and build an “open pavilion.” While the beach is a neighborhood treasure, the shallow lake is a pollution catch basin. A new $7-million natural filtration public swimming pool at Webber Park in north Minneapolis seems to be the future of safe swimming.

Small Scale Flexibility

Nobody is disputing the need for transportation.

LRT is 20th century technology—big, clunky, really pricey and fixed. We need to have smaller, more numerous and flexible transport choices. The greater Twin Cities are growing in an expanding circumference with multiple “centers.” People commute from a 27-county radius.

​The push to build big rather than to decentralize is inefficient in time and money: it does not provide jobs and sabotages our water. The current SWLRT proposal is a dinosaur.

Susu Jeffrey is a Twin Cities peace and environmental activist with a focus on water. She has three degrees, five books, and 30-some nonviolent civil disobedience arrests.

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