Lawsuit to Stop Current Southwest Light Rail Project Plan 'Possible'

Updated: 04/02/2014 10:19 PM By: Stephen Tellier

The Southwest Light Rail project is moving forward, but possible legal action still looms as a big potential problem.

Next week, the Met Council will likely vote to approve the $1.6 billion project, which includes building a shallow tunnel through the Kenilworth corridor in Minneapolis. Light rail trains would come above ground for 20 seconds as it passes over a water channel.

On Wednesday, a Met Council committee chose that option over one that would relocate freight rail to St. Louis Park. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges stated her firm opposition to the route, and voted no.

If the full Met Council does approve the project next week, officials would have until June to seek the approval of the five cities along the route and Hennepin County. But the controversy could land in a courtroom before that even happens.

One neighborhood group has been raising money for many months and has already hired a high-profile attorney. Its head tells us a lawsuit is possible in the coming weeks and months.

"The Met Council and the CMC (Corridor Management Committee) vote today said, 'Screw you guys, and we're going to do co-location,'" said Stuart Chazin with the Kenilworth Preservation Group.

Chazin said Minneapolis was made a promise that the Kenilworth corridor would host freight rail or light rail -- but not both.

"The frustration is the decision has been made that freight is going to stay here and it doesn't matter what any of us say," Chazin said.

Like so many of his neighbors, he's urging the Met Council to change course.

"And if they don't, we are looking into legal action," Chazin said.

When asked if the group would file a lawsuit if the Met Council votes approves the project next week, Chazin said, "I can't answer that at this time. It all depends."

"We do have a fund and we'll know more in the next couple weeks what our next step is," Chazin said.

"If we get both LRT and freight in the Kenilworth, we're going to lose a good chunk of urban green space," said Judy Meath with LRT Done Right, another group opposed to the project in its present form.

Meath said she's still optimistic that plans for the project can be altered at the 11th hour. Rather than considering legal action, she wants to continue conversing and convincing.

"It's about the public good, what is going to serve our cities, and it's not LRT right there," Meath said.

If nothing else, Wednesday's vote could prove to be a potent fundraising tool.

"People are coming up to me every single day now, since this announcement came up on Monday -- 'Where are we on the legal fund? Are we going to sue?'" Chazin said.

Five Eyewitness News also asked Mayor Hodges' office whether the city has considered taking legal action of its own. A spokesperson would only say that the next step is simply next week's full Met Council vote.

If the Met Council approves the project next Wednesday, it will submit plans the next day to the five cities and Hennepin County. Each gets to consider giving municipal consent, but the project could still move forward if consent is withheld. Council staff hopes to complete the municipal consent process by the end of June, to meet a timetable imposed by the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which funds 30 percent of the project.