Minnesota Light Rail Opponents Dealt Blow

     MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – A regional planning agency’s advancement of a light rail plan prior to the completion of an environmental impact statement does not violate federal or state law, a federal judge ruled.
     At issue is the $1.74 billion Southwest Light Rail Transit project, which is intended to link downtown Minneapolis with the outlying communities of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka, and Eden Prairie.
     Environmentalists object to the plan because as currently designed the project would pass through an area known as the “Kenilworth Corridor,” which they describe as “significant part of the City’s chain of lakes park system, one of the most prized, highly used recreational attractions in the region.”
     In a complaint filed in September 2014, the nonprofit Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis said the project would pass through the environmentally-sensitive area at grade and through shallow tunnels, that state and federal regulators have failed to adequately assess the impact of that approach, and that they also failed to consider less impactful alternatives.
     The group initially asked the Federal Court for declaratory and injunctive relief under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act, and various state light rail statutes. It later moved for summary judgment on its claims.
     But on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge John Tunheim held that while “the LPA demonstrated a plausible claim that the Met Council had – through the municipal consent process – gone ‘beyond the simple selection of a preferred alternative’ … the Court concludes that the LPA has not yet shown that the Met Council’s action have irreversibly and irretrievably committed to a specific SWLRT route.”
     He wrote: “Several facts are critical. First, the municipal consent process is not binding. Changes can be made to the project after initial approval[.] … Second, it is important to note that the MOUs signed with St. Louis Park and Minneapolis, while again likely to generate political pressure for a certain result, are also non-binding and do not unequivocally force the Met Council or the FTA to select a specific route.”
     Tunheim cited the 2005 decision by the Fourth Circuit, National Audubon Society v. Dept. of Navy, writing that “the Met Council’s activities may express a preference for a certain route, but they do not unequivocally ‘pre-commit’ either the Met Council or the FTA to that route, with no way to reverse course and put the work the agencies have done to use for a different approach.”
     While he denied the LPA’s motion for summary judgment, Tunheim did admit that “the Court remains concerned that the Met Council has done more than express a preferred alternative, and has ‘gone too far’ and has effectively committed itself to a specific route.”
     He continued: “While the agency in charge can state a subjective preference, the unique nature of the municipal consent process in Minnesota for light rail projects, and the significant drumbeat of support the Met Council assembled for a single route, certainly comes close to having the practical effect of limiting the available options, such that the remaining federal environmental review is meaningless.
     “Indeed, by signing an agreement with St. Louis Park that all but guarantees freight rail will stay in the Kenilworth Corridor, the Met Council has come dangerously close to impermissibly prejudicing the ongoing environmental review process,” Tunheim said. “Given the importance of a searching environmental analysis of each of the available options, the remaining steps in the process of securing municipal consent and finalizing environmental review – by both the Met Council and the FTA – should provide that searching analysis in order to comply with NEPA’s twin aims of informing decision-makers and involving the public.”

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