A plan to extend light-rail service to the northern suburbs faces opposition from an unusual quarter: leaders in the communities it's supposed to serve.
While transit planners won't settle on a final route for the Blue Line extension between Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park for at least a year, budding opposition to the project could waylay the Twin Cities' fourth — and likely final — light-rail line.
The Metropolitan Council, which will build and operate the Blue Line extension, is confident accommodations can be made to address community concerns.
But last week, the mayors of Robbinsdale and Crystal expressed opposition to a new 13-mile alignment for the Blue Line extension. And growing resistance in the Lyn Park neighborhood of north Minneapolis will make planning the project even more complicated for the Met Council and Hennepin County.
The debate raises questions whether a state law requiring cities and counties to grant "municipal consent" for light-rail routes will be tested for the first time. It wasn't a roadblock for the existing Blue and Green lines, or for the Southwest light-rail project now under construction.
The controversy comes as Metro Transit tries to regain its footing after the COVID-19 pandemic decimated ridership, and as some passengers avoid light rail because they think it's unsafe aboard trains and at stations. Plus, the Met Council is struggling to contain Southwest's scheduling delays and ballooning costs which have prompted an investigation by the legislative auditor.
Municipal-consent votes by cities along the Blue Line extension's proposed alignment — Minneapolis, Robbinsdale, Crystal and Brooklyn Park, as well as the county and the council — are at least a year away.
"We are optimistic by the time votes on municipal consent occur, most of the city concerns will be addressed satisfactorily," said Trevor Roy, a spokesman for the Blue Line project.
Others aren't so sure. "I'm not in support of this line, and I'm not ready to move forward," said Crystal Mayor Jim Adams during the Blue Line Extension's Corridor Management Committee meeting Thursday.
Adams is mostly concerned that light rail will result in fewer traffic lanes on busy Hwy. 81. "None of the designs or concepts they've brought to us have fallen into the realm of what we asked for," he said Friday. "I'm not confident our concerns will be addressed."
In 2016, Crystal did not vote on a different alignment for the Blue Line extension, avoiding a challenge to the state law.
If a city or county votes a plan down, state law says it must suggest "specific amendments" for review by the Met Council. But the law is vague if a disagreement persists.
Initial plans for the Blue Line extension involved sharing much of the route with BNSF Railway freight trains, but after years of futile negotiations with the Texas-based rail giant, the council abandoned the route in 2020 and started over.
The new route calls for light-rail trains to to travel on West Broadway through north Minneapolis, and mostly along Hwy. 81 to Brooklyn Park. The previous iteration was expected to cost $1.5 billion to build, but the current price tag is unclear. So far, $132 million has been spent on the project.
Previous plans featured a station in Robbinsdale in the BNSF corridor, but the stop is now located in the middle of Hwy. 81 — a move that prompted Mayor Bill Blonigan to oppose the project after years of support.
Blonigan says the council should ask Minnesota's congressional delegation and Gov. Tim Walz to engage BNSF again regarding Robbinsdale's stretch.
"You have billions of dollars of infrastructure money going to railroads right now," Blonigan said, referencing the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. "There has to be a carrot, there's got to be a stick to pressure the railroad back to the table."
Despite the objections, the advisory committee approved the new alignment — the council and Hennepin County will consider the measure later this month.
Transit planners will then start environmental and advanced design work for the line. If all goes according to plan, construction will begin in 2025, with passenger service starting in 2028.
The recent development worries many residents of Lyn Park, a suburban-like enclave in north Minneapolis, who say the light-rail trains on Lyndale Avenue will create a safety hazard and destroy the tranquility in their neighborhood. They prefer that the line travel from Target Field along Washington Avenue on the east side of Interstate 94.
It's unclear whether Lyn Park's opposition will sway how Minneapolis votes on municipal consent. Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents the area, said it's too early to decide which route will best serve the community.
Likewise, Hennepin County Commissioner Irene Fernando, whose district includes Lyn Park, said in a statement she doesn't support a specific route. "North Minneapolis is not a monolith," she said. "There are many residents who support transit and the recommended route, along with some who do not."
Fernando, who serves on the Blue Line advisory committee, said amendments adopted Thursday reflect Lyn Park residents' concerns and call for the Washington Avenue option to be studied.
But that provides little consolation for Kim Smith, a 32-year resident of Lyn Park, whose back yard faces Lyndale Avenue where light rail trains would operate.
"How are we supposed to fight this?" asked a frustrated Smith. "This is the first chance for generational wealth to be passed to our families, but now my home will be within feet of light rail."