Cities seek changes as Blue Line LRT extension moves ahead

As it tries to avoid the cost overruns and delays of the Green Line light rail extension, the north Metro's Blue Line project faces a different challenge: opposition along the route.

The mayors of Robbinsdale and Crystal have already voted against the latest routing once, and a key Metropolitan Council committee on Thursday rejected an attempt by Robbinsdale Mayor Bill Blonigan to reconsider the alignment through his city.

Opposition from cities equals a threat to the completion of the Target Field to Brooklyn Park line, which project officials hope to finish in 2028. Cities must sign off on the route, which project officials say won't be finalized until next spring and remains open to discussion.

"It would energize the downtown. It would integrate the downtown if it was right here in our central corridor as opposed to right there on the highway," Blonigan said during an interview while walking Broadway Avenue in his city's downtown.

Blonigan, who has been planning for light rail in Robbinsdale since he was elected to the City Council in the 1980s, prefers an alignment that uses the BNSF freight rail corridor one block west of downtown. Met Council officials shelved that idea when BNSF refused to negotiate, and have since moved the route just east of downtown onto busy County Highway 81.

Blonigan said residents and city officials have concerns about the safety of pedestrians crossing the highway to the light rail station, the potential for eminent domain of commercial property, and moving the station further from downtown. He said Met Council should ask Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota's federal delegation to try again with BNSF.

Met Council Chairman Charle Zelle did not bring the mayor's request up for a vote at Thursday's Corridor Management Committee meeting. Walz and former Gov. Mark Dayton both tried to persuade BNSF, and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith have made "concerted efforts," all without convincing the railroad, Zelle said.

"We really do believe it is a hard no," he said.

Colocation of light rail tracks and BNSF freight rail has been a nightmare for Met Council along the Green Line extension. The railroad forced Met Council to install a $100 million protection wall separating the tracks on one segment of the line, which will run from Target Field to Eden Prairie.

The council has also faced significant cost overruns and delays in the Kenilworth Corridor of Minneapolis, where light rail will use a half-mile tunnel to pass below freight trains. The Green Line extension, known as Southwest light rail, is now four years behind schedule.

The Blue Line is in queue after the Green Line and is currently the Twin Cities' final light rail project under serious planning. Once finished, it will allow a rider to travel between Brooklyn Park and the Mall of America without a transfer.

But Robbinsdale isn't the only city with concerns about the Blue Line extension's route. Crystal Mayor Jim Adams joined Blonigan in voting against route modifications in June over fears about losing traffic lanes in his city.

State law is unclear what happens if a city ultimately votes against the final route next year. Project officials are hoping it doesn't come to that and are pledging to keep working on sections of the route with stakeholders.

"Everything we do as we advance that design has to be done considering their thoughts, consider their concerns," said Dan Soler, a senior program administrator with Hennepin County who has previously been the Blue Line's project director. "Now I don’t know what it will take to get municipal consent exactly. I don’t know. But we’re going to try to find out."

Under the latest routing, the Blue Line will travel west from Target Field station before turning north along Lyndale Avenue, then west along Broadway before linking up with Bottineau Boulevard.

In north Minneapolis, residents of the Lyn Park neighborhood have raised concerns about light rail trains running adjacent to their backyards along Lyndale Avenue and the potential effect on their property values. Construction would be unpleasant, and trains could be a safety issue, they say.

A handful of residents held signs at Thursday's meeting that read "Why Lyndale?" Their preferred alternative is using Washington Avenue, which project officials say remains under consideration but would require eminent domain and would not be as convenient for north side residents who ride the train.

Minneapolis Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents the area and sits on the Corridor Management Committee, voted for the new route in June. He said Thursday that he sees "problems to solve" with the route, but that it's better than the BNSF alignment that bypassed north Minneapolis.