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Judge denies summary judgment in Southwest LRT case

Cali Owings//August 5, 2015

Judge denies summary judgment in Southwest LRT case

Cali Owings//August 5, 2015

A federal judge has ruled that the Metropolitan Council was within its rights to seek municipal approvals for the future Southwest Light Rail Transit line before updated environmental reviews were made available. But the decision does not end the case.

In an order Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim denied the Lakes and Parks Alliance’s request to stop the project and revoke the municipal approvals until a final environmental study was completed on the 14.5-mile line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. Even so, the judge noted that the case is still evolving.

While he ruled that a group of Minneapolis residents concerned about the Kenilworth Corridor could not prove their request for summary judgment at this point, Tunheim raised concerns that the Met Council’s practices may prejudice the final environmental review.

“The Met Council has come dangerously close to impermissibly prejudicing the ongoing environmental review process,” he wrote.

The Lakes and Parks Alliance takes issue with the Met Council’s plan to run light rail trains in a tunnel through the Kenilworth Corridor in Minneapolis and maintain freight rail operations. A previous environmental study, completed in 2012, found that co-locating freight and light rail trains in the corridor would be environmentally harmful. The alliance argues the Met Council has gone too far in its preference for this route despite the absence of additional environmental studies.

Tunheim shares that concern. He wrote that the Met Council’s agreements with various entities and the support it has garnered for the route “comes close to having the practical effect of limiting the available options, such that the remaining federal environmental review is meaningless.”

While summary judgment in favor of the Lakes and Parks Alliance would be premature at this point, Tunheim wrote he anticipates revisiting it later.

But at this point, Tunheim found that the Met Council has not yet irreversibly committed to the specific Southwest LRT route. He noted the municipal consent process is not binding. On the Hiawatha line between the Mall of America and Minneapolis, project planners sought a second round of municipal approvals from the city of Bloomington based on changes to the project.

He also points out that agreements between the Met Council and other entities like the city of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board are non-binding. The agreement with the park board explicitly states that the document does not require anyone to take action that will prejudice the environmental review process.

The final determination on the project’s environmental impact is the Federal Transit Administration, which has not yet made a decision and is not bound by the state’s municipal consent process, Tunheim noted. While the Met Council’s activities at this point show a preference for a particular route, it isn’t yet fully committed.

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