SWLRT to affect quality of life for Minneapolis residents, has serious environmental impacts and other drawbacks in what is suburban bid for development.
This article outlines the objections to the SWLRT as it is currently planned, including serious environmental impacts as well as potential rail safety concerns. It also brings to light the fact that although public transportation is needed in Minneapolis, and the disruptions and environmental impact—including serious adverse effects on the Chain of Lakes and lake areas—will occur primarily in the City of Minneapolis, the SWLRT is really designed for the development of the suburbs it reaches and not for Minneapolis at all, except to bring suburban workers downtown, where most Minneapolis residents do not live.
By Jeanette Colby Hill & Lake Press June 2016
In mid-May, the Met Council released the long-awaited Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Southwest LRT. In 17,000 pages, the Met Council compares a “No Build Alternative” to SWLRT. The no-build alternative includes the existing transportation system with all the planned expansions and “represents a possible outcome of the EIS process.” The Build comparison, the proposed SWLRT line, runs from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis, with LRT and freight co-located in the Kenilworth Corridor. The public was given only 30 days to review and formally respond to this complex document. State Representative Frank Hornstein and Senator Scott Dibble requested an extension to 90 days, but this was denied. The FEIS is available at http://metrocouncil.org/swlrt/feis.
Compared to not building SWLRT, the study anticipates that the $1.8 billion project should provide a number of benefits. Among others, these include the creation of construction jobs, long-term transit jobs, and the possibility of new jobs in locations served by LRT; the removal of contaminated soils and hazardous materials in areas where these exist; and the hope of “improved traffic conditions on the region’s travel networks.” The FEIS also attempts to address the many environmental and economic concerns raised by the Draft EIS and the Supplementary Draft EIS, including impacts on parks and trails, air quality, noise and vibrations, and public safety, among other things.
Because of the short timeframe, most Minneapolis organizations responding to the FEIS limited their comments to a few key areas. LRT Done Right (LRTDR) identified one of the study’s most unexpected findings: Primarily because of improved emission control technology and greater fuel efficiency in cars, Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions are likely to go down by 2040 under either the No Build or the SWLRT alternative. However, the projected GHG in 2040 is higher for SWLRT than for the No Build Alternative. SWLRT’s impact on Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions – a key selling point for the project’s supporters – is worse than the No Build Alternative by 2,000 metric tons annually by 2040 (page 3-204).
Other environmental impacts indicated in the FEIS and surfaced by LRTDR include an increase in air toxics near stations, especially those with park-and-rides and where people will be dropped off (“kiss-and-rides”). The long-term impacts of SWLRT on 20 wetlands comprising 6.53 acres would be offset only by purchase of credits rather than environmental mitigation. The Chain of Lakes and Grand Rounds would be adversely impacted; the FEIS admits that the SWLRT crossing of the Kenilworth Channel would cause significant visual and noise impacts and proposes a 2-foot high wall as sufficient noise mitigation.
In a carefully researched and articulated discussion of the project’s “Purpose and Need,” LRT Done Right underscored the extent to which the project design inequitably favors prosperous suburbs and “choice riders” over urban transit needs. The group pointed out that Eden Prairie and Minnetonka successfully pushed to move the route off of the Hennepin County-owned right-of-way in their communities, comparable to the Kenilworth Corridor in Minneapolis, to improve business competitiveness and development prospects in those cities. This is why the diagonal route becomes hook shaped at the southwest suburban end of the proposed route. The result was an increase in permanent recreational green space in the rail right-of-way for Eden Prairie and an increase in total project costs for the region – of at least $500 million – as well as a loss of routing options for Minneapolis since only Kenilworth was then deemed affordable by SWLRT project staff and leaders.
LRT Done Right also pointed to the poor cost-benefit calculation of spending $1.8 billion to divert only about 6,500 cars from roadways at rush hour as articulated in the FEIS, especially since the carpooling rate in the area is so low and could (should) be expected to achieve the rates of other major cities. They observed the SWLRT would produce a “barely measurable” increase in system-wide transit outside the southwest corridor despite the claim the SWLRT is key to building a transit network (FEIS ridership data on table 4.1-2 on p. 4-18). They underscored the project’s high opportunity cost, considering the projected 750,000 metro population increase. Find the LRT Done Right response at LRTDoneRight.org.
The City of Minneapolis, while stressing a role as “reliable regional partners”’ in planning the proposed SWLRT, found it necessary to correct the SWLRT history presented in the FEIS. When the City Council was asked to vote on a “Locally Preferred Alignment” (LPA) in 2010, they clearly understood the recommended Kenilworth route would mean moving freight rail to make way for light rail as all planning and policy had stated to that point. Yet the FEIS claims, surprisingly, that the LPA recommendation included either freight re-location or co-location. The City reviewed its position that “the routing of Southwest LRT was not designed around serving disadvantaged populations or serving the greatest number of Minneapolis residents. It was designed to achieve the fastest route between suburban and downtown destinations.”
The City also pointed to the need for improved emergency response planning, both for possible freight rail disasters and for impediments to emergency vehicles during construction and operations. The City asked the Met Council to minimize both tree removal and vibrations during construction – a particular concern to residents of the Calhoun-Isles condominiums (see below) – and asked that LRT-generated noise “continue to be evaluated and minimized.” See the full response at http://www.minneapolismn.gov/www/groups/public/@clerk/documents/webcontent/wcmsp-180951.pdf.
The Calhoun-Isles Condominium Association (CICA), which includes the converted grain silos south of Cedar Lake Parkway and is adjacent to the proposed Kenilworth tunnel, decided to hire an engineering firm to assist in the technical aspects of their FEIS response. Their concerns were heightened last year when construction on the nearby former Tryg’s site caused significant structural damage to the neighboring Loop Calhoun residences. With expert help, the CICA concluded that the Met Council’s analysis of likely SWLRT tunnel construction impacts “is faulty and fails to account for necessary mitigation.” In the engineer’s assessment, the building is a “Category IV Structure” (very sensitive to construction vibrations), though the Met Council’s categorizes it as a “Category I Structure” (least sensitive to construction vibrations). They also found misrepresented distances between the actual construction site and the association’s townhouse structures.
Around the country there are LRT projects that share rights-of-way corridors with freight rail, and the FEIS reviews some of these in an appendix. In their FEIS response, Citizens Acting for Rail Safety – Twin Cities (CARS-TC) points out that while co-location of LRT and freight rail operations might initially appear to be a reasonable strategy, the advent of high volume oil and ethanol shipments coupled with glaring liability insurance gaps mean that co-location can create serious dangers and unnecessary risk. They note that when freight carriers plan a new rail route, the U.S. Department of Transportation requires them to develop a risk assessment using 28 factors; the SWLRT FEIS does not appear to have taken these critical factors into consideration.
The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB), responsible for trail management as well as several parks near the Minneapolis portion of the proposed SWLRT route, shares CARS-TC’s concern about freight safety and impacts, stating that since freight was to have been moved to make way for light rail, “it remains reasonable to presume [freight rail’s] presence as a new condition that should be additive when considering the introduction of light rail transit to the corridor.” The MPRB also expressed concern about preserving vital elements of the Grand Rounds Historic District, and the design of trails to ensure safety for pedestrians and cyclists. The MPRB’s comments will be posted on their website, minneapolisparks.org.
Finally, Representative Hornstein and Senator Dibble echoed concerns about freight rail safety in their FEIS comments to the Met Council, saying:
“We had mistakenly anticipated that the Council and FTA would seriously address rail safety concerns regarding colocation during the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement process. The FEIS falls significantly short of addressing those concerns.
“The FEIS should not be deemed adequate until issues related to freight rail safety as discussed above and in citizen and other public sector comments are addressed. If issues pertaining to rail safety cannot be adequately addressed, LRT should not be located in such close proximity to an active freight rail line.”
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From air quality to freight rail safety, the government and community groups who responded to the FEIS identified many critical concerns during the short comment period that closed on June 13th. The Met Council will now determine the adequacy of the study, though there appears to be no mechanism for resolving concerns and disputes at this point in the process. If the FTA agrees with the Met Council that environmental laws have been followed it will issue a “Record of Decision” which the Met Council expects at some date in the near future. The Met Council may apply for federal funding for the proposed SWLRT if they receive an FTA Record of Decision.