Transparency and funding concerns sidetrack project
Planning for the Blue Line extension is delayed because the Met Council failed to approve two important agreements that would move the project forward. The agreements, which members voted 9-5 to postpone until September 13, would require Hennepin County to give Metro Transit up to $75 million to plan and engineer the project ahead of when local communities vote on whether or not to allow the project to be built next year. It would also allow Metro Transit to execute a contract with an engineering firm to refine the Blue Line Extension’s design so the agency can present it to local communities to vote on next year.
The measures failed to pass the Met Council’s transportation and management committees by unanimous vote, which is unusual given the members’ voting history. Several Met Council members expressed concerns about how Met Council staff make decisions and explain their work to councilmembers. Those council members cited an August 21 announcement that the Met Council and Hennepin County would use a mix of existing sales tax dollars and a share of federal funds to plug a $272 million funding gap for the Southwest Light Rail project.
Though it appeared that the funding deal between the Met Council and Hennepin County on the Southwest Light Rail project was not being considered at that meeting, Councilmember Deb Barber, who represents most of Carver and all of Scott County and chairs the transportation committee, was nonetheless upset, and said she had no role in shaping the deal.
“I don’t think anyone around this table really contributed to the proposed agreement on solving the Green Line funding gap,” said Deb Barber. “I don’t think I’m comfortable moving things ahead when there’s not been that kind of transparency or robustness and discussion.”
Other council members were worried about what the Met Council was going to do to address displacement issues, echoing concerns that Northside residents and business owners have. Councilmember Judy Johnson, who represents western Hennepin County, echoed those concerns. “I am worried about the risks around displacement and how we are going to manage that,” said Johnson. “It’s moving at a rapid pace. There’s layers and layers and layers. [There is] more that we don’t know and we should know [before we] vote.”
Councilmember Toni Carter, who represents parts of St. Paul, echoed those concerns. “I do not have the information I need in order to [vote]. I am very, very troubled by the need to take this action without an understanding of that agreement,” said Carter.
The Blue Line extension project has been in the works since at least the 1980s. In 2016, project planners decided to run the Blue Line extension on a Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad corridor to Brooklyn Park. The agency abandoned the alignment because BNSF was unwilling to negotiate use of its corridor. Project planners are currently envisioning running the line through the heart of North Minneapolis, as well as down the middle of Bottineau Boulevard to 73rd Avenue in Brooklyn Park, then up West Broadway to the Target North Campus.
However, residents and business owners in North Minneapolis have complained about the lack of transparency on the project in deciding the route and how it would affect their businesses and property. The state legislature passed a law this past session requiring planners to host quarterly meetings—the first of which was held last Wednesday—to inform and answer questions from Northside communities about the project.
Despite concern over the lack of transparency voiced by residents and staff, some on the Met Council insisted on moving forward to keep the Blue Line extension project on schedule. “Those concerns [about transparency] extend beyond the proposed action today. In not supporting this action you would be delaying the Blue Line,” said Anjuli Cameron, who represents Brooklyn Center, Crystal, Golden Valley, Hopkins, New Hope, Robbinsdale, St. Louis Park, and parts of Edina.
The vote means the Met Council will have to suspend all contracts associated with planning the project, including contracts for anti-displacement work, according to what agency staff said at the meeting. The full Met Council will consider the agreements again on September 13.