Will Met Council’s Secretive Deal Keep SWLRT Alive?

At least Americans were told upfront that candidate Trump planned to build a wall like it or not. But Minneapolis residents have found out the hard way about the Met Council’s more than mile-long, 10-foot-high and 3-foot-wide concrete wall suddenly coming down the tracks as part of the controversial Southwest Light Rail Transit project.

Met Council representatives quietly negotiated and agreed to build the wall as a condition for two railroad lines to share their right-of-way with the light rail line. Local politicians told the Southwest Journal they were left out of the loop for all practical purposes in the secretive last-minute deal.

City Council Member Kevin Reich criticized a “lack of transparency” in the negotiations around the wall, intended to serve as a barrier between light rail and freight trains, which he said city officials first learned about less than a week before the vote. Reich, who chairs the council’s Transportation Committee, also raised questions about plans to shift the Cedar Lake Trail, a popular bicycle and pedestrian path that runs parallel to the future light rail line, as well as the Met Council’s commitment to accept liability for any incidents involving both freight and light rail trains in a shared corridor owned by BNSF.

The Met Council faces pressure to cobble together a deal with the rail companies post haste. It’s the last major hurdle standing in the way of seeking a Full Funding Agreement for $928 million in federal funding to begin construction.

The Trump administration opposes funding transit projects that were not approved by October 2016, but the state agency has been furiously lobbying Congress behind the scenes. Yet unhappy Minneapolis officials could still cause problems.

In an Aug. 14 letter to Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb, Minneapolis Director of Public Works Robin Hutcheson wrote that city staff had “consistently maintained the position that barrier walls would be a detriment to the project and to the community,” adding that the city expected a “robust forum” to discuss the wall’s design and air community concerns. Hutcheson also noted the new components of the project could affect city assets, including the Bassett Creek Tunnel, which carries the creek to the Mississippi River beneath downtown. The tail track will be built on top of it, Alexander said.

Minneapolis legislators also criticized the deal, saying the Met Council was over-matched by the railroads.

Rep. Frank Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble, who both represent the portion of Minneapolis that includes the future SWLRT corridor, questioned several provisions of the shared-use agreement with BNSF that anticipate the possibility that the co-location of freight and light rail in one shared corridor could be challenged by future laws. Met Council agreed to either pay for modifications to the corridor or challenge those laws in court, and if either tactic fails, to suspend SWLRT operations.

While Alexander described the scenario as very unlikely, Hornstein noted in an interview that one possible outcome of the shared-use agreement would be Met Council suing the City of Minneapolis or some other local unit of government on behalf of BNSF. Hornstein said it appeared “Met Council basically bended to all the railroad’s interests here.”

“There’s no excuse, just because you’re negotiating with the private sector on something, that you have to freeze out key stakeholders,” he added.

It all happened so fast that SWLRT project director Jim Alexander indicated he didn’t have time to keep the affected communities up to speed.

…The wall and the new tail track came up very late in those conversations, Alexander said, adding that they remained privileged until he presented the details to the Met Council.

“We don’t have a lot of leeway to talk to outside parties about the nature or the content of the discussions,” he said. “That’s one of the challenges here.”

The deal also includes millions of taxpayer dollars to the railroads for losses resulting from construction, track upgrades, easements and other issues. All negotiated and agreed upon behind closed doors in the tradition of the largest unelected regional government agency in the country.